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.

On Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5-7

This is probably the first year since I could hold a pen that I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. After recently taking the enneagram and discovering myself to be the “Reformer” (wing “Achiever”) this is rather surprising. I love goals and lists and plans and I work, practice, study, and exercise consistently. However, while I did not set any specific goals and am continuing along more or less as usual, I did realize a few areas in which I need greater consistency.

The first of these is prayer.

My morning devotions center on the reading and rereading of scripture. (I highly recommend picking an epistle or passage and reading it daily for a month.) Although I love digging into the Word and pondering its truth, I fear I sometimes err on the side of intellect rather than faith. Recently, I was accepted to pursue a master’s in “Theology and the Arts” at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, so I am thankful for my ability to read scripture as an academic. However, as I enter the final semester of my undergrad, new friendships and relationships, and look to a future that’s both terrifying and exciting, I’m confronted with things that go beyond academic analysis.

A week ago, as I tossed and turned at that dreaded hour (see “Three o’Clock in the Morning”), I realized that what I needed was (and is) prayer and, being at a loss for the words to properly express myself, I turned to the Psalms: the most honest, broken, beautiful, truth-bound poetry ever written.

I am not the best at expressing my emotions; as a generally happy person, I try to avoid showing any other side of myself. When I pray aloud with others and even in private prayer, I find myself trying to reason myself to happiness. While I am quick to worry within my own mind and heart, I am slow to present these anxieties to the One who will listen and heal. In reading the Psalms, it became so obvious that prayer, while so often comprised of and resolving in praise, is also manifested in lament.

Lamentation is a concept I’ve been turning over in my mind for several years, but ultimately it’s something that cannot be solely rationalized. It’s a deep expression of incomprehensible emotions, yet it is not all chaos. As an artist, the psalmist begins with broken materials but eventually shapes them into order through poetic exploration. Wrestling with terror and enemies and uncertainty, psalms of lamentation reorient to faith and praise, for they and their writer are upheld by truth.

Why, then, should I be afraid to pour forth even the most confusing feelings of my heart? After all, Romans 8:26 assures us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Expressing emotion is not separate from studying and living truth; when even the most anxious of feelings are anchored in truth, they may be safely explored when in conversation with God.

Recently, I purchased a new journal (see “New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?”) and am finding it the perfect place to express and explore in prayer. Immediately upon writing and praying over the words (some of which made very little sense at all when put down) I felt a rush of relief. Worries are overwhelming when swarming in a sleep-deprived brain, but often once they are written in bright-colored ink, they seem silly. And they seem even tinier when presented before a sovereign God who promises to hear and help.

Before I set to journalling, one verse presided in my thoughts, but I feared I was misapplying it like some cliché cross-stitch pillow. But when I looked it up, I was struck to find it more applicable to my situation than I could have imagined:

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”

– 1 Peter 5:5-7 (ESV)

“You who are younger.” 

Hey, that’s me! I’m 22 and I have to admit that Taylor Swift had it just about right when she sang that “we’re happy free, confused and lonely at the same time / it’s miserable and magical.” But here in 1 Peter are words written not only to capture how it feels to be young, but to hold my hand through it. Indeed, it promises that the might hand of God will uphold me and provide in his perfect timing.

“Humble yourselves.” 

I do not know everything. Part of my problem with prayer is that it requires me to admit this. It requires me to beg, to acknowledge that from God all blessings flow and that I can do nothing to earn them. As I journaled through this passage of scripture, I used this command to humility to write out my uncertainties and admit my limited vision in submission to the omniscience of God. It’s amazing how kneeling relieves one’s burdens. 

“The mighty hand of God.” 

Remember his providence. I love journaling because it allows me to read back through the arc of my life. Worries that once seemed insurmountable are now laughable. Hopes I once exalted were disappointed and replaced with much better things. Reader and Friend, praise God for his faithfulness. Admit your anxieties, but never forget that an authentic prayer is not only honest to your situation, but to that of a God who is constant and caring. Prayers without acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and faithfulness are sorely one-sided. The lament Psalms decry man’s state, but ever return to the power of the Lord’s hand.

“Casting all your anxieties on him.” 

I made a list as I contemplated this line. I dumped ever single “what-if-worry” that flapped about in my brain like moths. It was a bit like a game of “Worst-case scenario” where my hypothetical fears got progressively more and more ridiculous, but by the time I was finished, I was laughing instead of worrying. With my Savior carrying my burden, I felt able again to “laugh without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

“He cares for you.” 

This. This is blessed assurance. I’m a logical person and need to be rationally convinced of most things. I’m not sure how to respond to compliments sometimes because of this, let alone respond to a letter that speaks so plainly of God’s providential love for me. I am overwhelmed, no longer with fear, but with awe. 

What amazing, never-failing grace. How can I keep from praying?

I will fail (over and over and over again) to go to my knees. However, I have a God who cares for me so personally and perfectly, that I am responding to that love by committing to more regular prayer. It’s difficult: I have to humble myself, admitting that I am not always in control, not always perfectly happy, and don’t always know what’s going to happen. But, as my choir director so often says, “practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.” 

That said, I am committing to practicing prayer, using study and scripture as a guide for expressing that which cannot be put into prose and turning it to praise.

New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?

One of the great recurring dilemmas of my life is how to pick the perfect journal. Honestly, when it comes time to shop for a new journal, it feels like going on first dates: there are some options that look good but are boring, some that are perfectly nice but no spark, and some that just are a total affront to the purpose of a journal. (Trust me on this one: I once used a journal that looked like neon seahorse had been brutally poached to make its cover…it may be filled with great memories, but I am filled with regret that I endured that notebook for so many months.)

However, having been an avid writer for as long as I can remember, I have narrowed picking a new journal down to a near science.

There are the obvious factors such as:

  1. Size: Large enough to read, small enough to squeeze into a purse, medium enough for an artsy Instagram photo to prove that you do indeed write in it.
  2. Lines: Do you want lines? Bullets? Or— I’m lookin’ at you T-Swift —  blank space?
  3. Binding: Spiral? Flat? Antiquarian? Composition book? HELP.
  4. Covers: Hard, soft, over-easy, scrambled…wait no, that’s not right.
  5. Adornments: Bible verses each page? Inspirational thoughts? The full text of Pride and Prejudice in itty bitty type along each line?

But wait! There’s MORE!

  1. Stage of life: An “end-of-an-era” journal ought to look different than a “filled-with-high-hopes” journal and an autumn diary is likely to be quite different than a spring diary.
  2. Current goals: Tracking your fitness? Planning your homework? Composing poetry? Plotting your next campaign? The proper tool is key!
  3. Personal Style: As much as I might admire that hipster look, my life is lived in bright floral and, while I admire that skull diary, it would not quite match my pink pajamas.

I am about to enter not only a new year, but my final semester as an undergraduate; as such, there are exciting things happening every moment and this amped up the pressure to find the perfect journal. Unfortunately, it seems I have used every decent model sold at my go-to stores (aside from a too-expensive Monet-print leather model which I drooled over for a bit).

Anyway, after  failing, even at Target (*shakes fist at security cameras*), I resorted to online shopping which, at least for books, is not the same. Of course I use it for convenience, but it just isn’t as satisfying as strolling through aisles of shelves, picking out a new notebook or novel, smelling that fresh papery scent and feeling the smooth inky pages… I spent HOURS of non-book-scented time scrolling through Amazon, putting way too many options in my cart. Honestly, it felt like literary online dating and finally I had to just swipe what looked promising and hope it will up to its profile in real life.

I suppose I’ll find out on Thursday.

Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren

 

Little Elegy

Walking through Cambridge, inspiration is difficult to avoid. My apologies to those on the sidewalk who had to go around me as I stopped to give this poor bird a proper elegy.

“His eye is on the sparrow,” so ’tis sung
But ‘neath some foot or wheel its feathers flung-
Poor claws curled up in pain all that remain
Of this, the least of these, abandoned-slain.

The serpent struck, his head then doomed to crush,
Yet somehow just this little life- this thrush-
Drops down, his sun-stripe yellow turned to grey,
And he who flew now falls into decay.

Though sorrowful surrender stills his wings,
Another takes his tune and still he sings.

*(Poetic disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of AABBCC… but this the rhyme scheme that happened and it somehow seems fitting.)

Unravel

The irony is that I was unable to write this story for several months due to the demands of the everyday… enjoy! 😉

 

Unravel

Not another! she thought, plucking at a thread on her favorite navy blue jumper. It hurt her to pull on it, she was so fond of the old sweater. With a sigh, she tucked the mutinous thread back into the cuff of her sleeve. She could get away with at least a few more days of wear if she just didn’t make it worse.

The thread still poked out of her sleeve, casting a hairlike shadow over her exposed wrist. Even the shadow of it seemed the same navy color as the sweater itself. She squinted at it.

A scratch? Her declawed cat yawned innocently at her from across the room.

Ink?

Ink.

She laughed, fingering the Pilot G-2 gel pens (the only acceptable pen for writing, in her opinion) that sprouted from her pencil cup like a bouquet of blue and black flowerless stems. There were a few red poppies for editing sprinkled in between.

She clicked an old G-2 blue, the small sound echoing in the still room. The clip was broken off and the grip worn down to almost bear her fingerprints. A few shallow bite marks from either boredom or contemplation scarred its top. It was a loyal pen and something in her hand and heart relaxed as her fingers curved around it.

Oh! it was so tempting…

A fresh journal lay beside the pencil cup, its covers closed demurely yet the alluring white of its pages peeking out like petticoats.

Oh, falsely-shy journal! It was flirting with the pens!

Now, there was an idea, she thought. Suggestive yet sweet…it would make a delicious poem.

Without realizing it, the writer drew the journal across the desk toward herself. Catching her breath in anticipation, she peeled open the covers, relishing the sticky, creaky sound of an unopened book, when-

No! shouted a voice. That is, if voices that only exist in one’s head can shout.

What do you think you are doing?

Although audible only in the writer’s mind, it felt to her as if the voice were speaking from the planner that lay open on the center of the desk. Its covers, a gaudy pink, beckoned shamelessly, demanding attention and spreading its pages wide, boldly revealing ribbons of to-do lists, fake jewels of unchecked boxes, and tattoos of scribbled dates and numbers.

Look here! it called. Do you see all that’s written in me? Why write fancies anew when there’s so much to do!

It taunted her in rhyme, that imagined sing-song voice of her brazen planner.
But it convinced her all the same.

With a resigned sigh, the writer slid the disappointed journal aside and turned to study the planner, which seemed to blossom with pride.

To-do, to-see, to-call, to…, to… , to… she muttered. Between each “to,” she took a large swig of coffee, not even pausing to grimace at its cold bitterness. Only a few weeks ago, she would have been savoring a cappuccino in a cozy cafe, turning espresso into expression as she wrote the day away.

But not now! No. Now it was only black coffee to get the job done. Bitter, strong, and quick. Like her. Down it went and off she went. She rose and was out the door, planner in hand and gloating at the abandoned journal, before the final drop of coffee reached her throat.

When that last drop reached her stomach, two things were forgotten: the scorned journal that yet waited for her and the pulled thread on her sweater, which, hidden up her sleeve, was growing longer by the minute.

__________

Out! Out I say! The writer scrubbed vigorously at the dark line of navy ink on her left wrist, inadvertently channeling the spirit of Lady Macbeth as she wrestled with her own “damned spot.”

Why would it not come off? The shower, usually an everyday School of Athens for the introspective soul, provided no answers. She scrubbed at the stain until her skin was raw, but it only seemed to stretch further, winding around her arm and up towards her collarbone like a long, wet hair.

She gagged at the simile and began to worry about this seemingly permanent stain. And then her worry turned to wonder. It is, after all, the business of a writer to convert fearful “what ifs” into sources of intrigue; they lead to the best stories.

Soon she found herself lost in just such a story. The inexplicable, growing ink stain was forgotten once more as she explored a host of what-ifs that would have driven any non-writer mad.

She laughed at this.

The thoughts of a writer would drive a sane person mad, she shook her wet head. Not at all! A writer is a sane person driven mad and enjoying it quite heartily.

She rinsed her hair and sank back into wonder at her own imagination, not noticing that one of the hairs she rinsed was not a hair at all, but a winding blue thread.

An alarm shook her from her reverie. Slapping a wet hand over her phone on the counter, she stumbled into dry clothes- never mind that her hair was still crinkly with shampoo and her mind still lost in a brainstorm. The alarm, the bugle cry of her planner, had sounded and she must to arms! Or, at least, to-do lists. Wandering through wonderings would have to wait.

She jammed her ink-lined arm into her faithful sweater and, gasping as the autumn air nipped at her wet scalp, stepped out into the real world to begin her daily race of classes and errands and work. The chilled air and burdensome weight of reality warded off any lingering twinklings of inspiration. She did not even notice that the thread of her sweater and the ink on her skin were stretching and intertwining themselves like a double-headed snake.

She was a student by trade and a writer in spirit. She went to university classes to succeed, but wrote to survive. Words were her sustenance and product, the very stuff of her soul.

But time and cold practicality have little use for the substance of souls, especially those of the poetic material. So to class she went, shielded by a planner and marching alongside people who talked too much and read too little.

Stifling a yawn and planning her best route to the campus coffee shop for pick-me-up number three, the writer endured her first lecture of the day. She passed the time fidgeting with her pen, her fingers dancing like a baton twirler as her mind juggled her massive list of tasks, prioritizing and categorizing and thoroughly boring her into a daze.

But twirl and juggle as she might, she dared not touch the brand new Pilot pen to her notebook for anything other than bulleting lecture notes in uninspired print. Cursive and complete sentences were just too alluring…

She was startled into alertness by a change in the professor’s tone. His pitch sharpened and his words were accelerating. It turned suddenly from a monotonous, bagpipe-like drone to the exhilaration of a Dvorak symphony. How had she never heard his passion before? Her ears prickled and her mind whirred into action.

She was captivated. How had she not seen it before? That her professor was the epitome of the quirky, scholastic archetype? The soldier-straight busy work that passed for her notes veered sideways into looping script as she launched into a character sketch. But then-

“Your assignment is…” said the professor, droning once more.

The writer’s heart sank as her pen’s dancing died with the music of the professor’s impassioned speech. It returned to its steady, uninteresting procession as she recorded yet another task to complete, another deadline to meet.

Class was dismissed. She rose to leave, but gasped as the snag of her sweater caught on a rough edge of the old desk. She heard it rip as it stretched longer and felt a tear leap into her eye. Why had it hurt? Had she imagined that it hurt?

Carefully, she untangled the thread from the splintered desk and tucked it back up her sleeve. It was almost too long to hide now. As she pushed it out of sight, the ink stain caught her vision as the desk had caught the snag. Was it darker than before? And where was the hole in her sweater? But then the sight of her watch, ticking away her all-too-short lunch break sent her out the door without a second glance.

__________

Not again! shrieked the writer, wincing in pain as if she had received the worst paper cut she had ever had- and, being a writer, she had had many.  She reached down to unhook her sweater from the knob of her bedroom door, pushing her glasses up her nose, scrutinized the sleeve for the hole that must certainly have grown larger.

But there was no hole in the sweater. It looked brand new- albeit a bit faded from over a year of near-constant wear.

She pushed up her sleeve.

The ink line was still there, but thicker. It almost looked like a vein that had lost its place and was making its way to the surface. She rubbed it and cringed. An ink stain should not hurt.

She rolled her eyes at herself. It didn’t hurt. She was imagining things.

She pressed at it again, but this time a sharp pain sent stars across her vision. She cried out.

Her cat brushed against her leg, meowing in what she imagined was concern but knew was just annoyance that he had yet to be fed. He meowed indignantly.

Blinking back tears, she reached down and booped him on his pink nose. Patience, cat. Just one more assignment to submit, one more email to send.

He hissed. What cares had a cat for deadlines? He pawed at her hand.

Not now.

Meow?

Not now. Meow. Not now. Meow. The rhyming words and sound echoed in her mind as she scanned her planner. It was the closest thing to poetry she had been able to write all month. She felt a pang in her chest at the realization.

The cat must have felt a similar pang in his stomach, for he welcomed himself onto the desk, pawing at her hand and knocking the G-2 from her grasp. She ignored him. He was not to be ignored. He pawed at her wrist.

Good thing he’s declawed- might have snagged my sweater again, she thought absently.

The cat let out his most pitiful meow and nudged her writing hand with his nose again. He opened his mouth to protest once more, but it was her scream that filled the room. 

The thread was caught on his collar. It pulled. She watched it lengthen through vision blurred with tears. Why, oh why, did it hurt?

She fumbled to unhook it from his collar, but her movement startled him and the cat leapt from the desk, taking the caught thread with him. It pulled longer, yet the sweater remained in tact. She squinted down at her sleeve, baffled.

And then she saw – too late.

The pulled thread and the ink stain. The wandering vein. One and the same.

But the color was all wrong. It was navy at first, but then black like her hair and then speckled with the red of revising, the red of poppies…the red of her blood.

Blinding pain followed by a bizarre sense of release cut across her body as the cat drew the thread around the room. She felt for it and, grabbing it, pulled. Unsure what she was doing, she pulled the thread for what felt like forever, feeling it continue to stretch and grow like a magician’s scarf.

But it was not a scarf. It was not even a thread. And it was most definitely- she knew that now- not coming from her sleeve.

The horrid thought struck her as more and more poppy red flashed across her star-studded vision: it was not the sweater that was unravelling.

But it was too late to stop. She could not stop. Like picking a scab. She knew it was wrong, that it would not end well, but there was a morbid satisfaction in it. And so she continued to pull at the strand until it came to an end and was abruptly cut off and she, in snapping her own thread, had acted as her own Fate.

But she was no longer there to enjoy that poetic realization.

__________

The planner’s to-do lists sat as forlorn as the untouched journal, busy mistress and lonely maiden united in their abandonment. The bouquet of pens said useless and wilting.

The watch and alarm continued to tick away the minutes, but there was nobody but the cat to hear them. And what cares a cat for deadlines? He simply wanted his dinner, but was placated- for now- by his new toy. He had made it for himself- wasn’t he clever?- out of a loose thread. It was not quite as nice as a ball of yarn, but a pile of blue and red and black thread was just as interesting to a kitten; it felt just as nice batted between his soft paws.

His playtime was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Rae? called a voice. “You in there?”

“Meow,” answered the cat.

“Not you,” laughed the voice, entering the room and wondering aloud where her roommate was. She’d missed dinner.

“Do you know where Rae is?” she asked the cat playfully, giving him a scratch behind his velvety ears.

He meowed innocently, continuing to tangle his paws in the mess of thread.

“Oh dear,” muttered the roommate. “She left her sweater behind!”

She picked up the sweater which lay crumped on the desk chair and folded it neatly before turning her attention back to the cat.

“What is it you’ve got there?” she reached down to untangle him from his creation. He bristled indignantly and strode out of the room.

She studied the pile of thread she held in her hands but then abruptly let it fall to the ground again as she felt a liquid seep from it onto her skin.

Bending down, she examined it. Were those-

They were.

Was it-

It was.

As she carefully fingered the thread, she saw that it was bent in unusual shapes- letters, words- strung together in a cursive script she knew all too well.

And the moist residue. It was ink. And something worse than ink. Navy, black, and red gel ink from the pens that were always scattered around the apartment.

She took a step back, staring in horror at the pile of thread on the floor. She could not bring herself to read the words written in the inky remains, but she knew whose they were.

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

She recalled a quote Rae had shared with her just a few days ago.

A non-writing writer is bound to unravel.

Non-Writing Writer

I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music. 

My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!” 

Valid. 

But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits. 

So I wrote a little rhyme to vent: 

A non writing writer’s a monster they say:

A little too frazzled and nearly insane.

She lives in an enchanted, storybook world 

Yet can’t venture in, for life is a whirl.

One single word leads to many and two-

Well, they multiply to be more than a few. 

And should she dare to compose a small line 

She risks the danger of falling behind;

The everyday life has no cares for the muse,

Though the poet’s soul, she hardly did choose. 

So cursed with a mind that brews up ideas 

And a heart that ever ceaselessly feels,

She stumbles about with a businesslike stride 

And forces her little brainchildren to hide

And wait for a time when life will relax 

It’s grip made of boring and ord’nary tasks-

So she might finally write them all down,

These inkling ideas that, impatient, abound.