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

IMG_2291 2

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.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 at 19.13.27

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.

Screenshot 2020-03-15 at 19.16.08

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.

A Lesson in Time

IMG_8924

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. 

The Shop

“Okay, what quirky place inspired this story?” asked my editor upon reading the following tale. “It’s too random not to be based on reality.”

My editor (who may or may not also be my mother, but she was an English teacher/professor so it’s kosher) was right. This story sparked to life in an antique mall in Pasadena, but from there, it was out of my control. I honestly had no clue where it was going until suddenly I had been transported back in time, forward again, and to a conclusion I had not envisioned. I hope you enjoy my newest short story: “The Shop.”

 

imgres

The Shop

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Alice paused upon reading this sign, but only for a moment. She then gave a tiny shrug (“Unladylike!” she imagined her Aunt Cordelia remarking with a sniff) and shifted her beaded handbag under her arm, allowing the fringe of her dress to fall over it.

This fringed dress also would have shocked poor Aunt Cordelia, but that was part of why Alice chose not only to wear it but to flaunt it. She had the figure for it, so why not? Her narrow, almost boyish silhouette would never have looked right in a corseted dress made for an old-fashioned matron like her aunt. No, she had decided- or rather modern couture had decided for her- it was better to stick to what society deemed the most appealing. Besides, it was 1926; even her aunt could not deny that styles were changing.

After all, just that morning hadn’t some young man complimented her? At the very least he had called out, “Hey doll! Nice gams you got there; looking swell!” as she had walked past on her way to meet Helen for coffee. She had smiled back at the time, but now upon recalling the man’s slang, she felt herself blush. Had it been indecent? She shrugged again. Who cared? She was a free and attractive woman and should be proud of such attention. At least, that’s what the magazines said.

Alice pushed open the door to the store. A bell rang and a clerk appeared looking starched and pressed behind a gleaming counter.

“Welcome, miss,” he said, a toothy smile plastered on his face like an advertisement.

Alice nodded but could not spare him more than a glance as her eyes stretched wide, trying and failing to take everything in at once. Helen had not been exaggerating when she had said that this new store was a wonder. Granted, it was not a Macy’s or Bloomingdales in size, but those were department stores for housewives. This was different. It was smaller, yet more exciting for this fact- more “nifty” as Helen had put it. It was a chain store: modern, trendy, and, according to the ads, affordable. It was the real-life version of the mail order catalogue that she and Helen had nicknamed the “Bible” and poured over ravenously while pouring java down their throats. They were convinced that the goods in the catalogue and now in this chain store were necessary to their thriving in the new era, just as they were convinced that the coffee they drank was necessary to combat the effects of a night spent dancing and testing the reality of Prohibition.

“Miss?” said the clerk, still through his poster-perfect teeth.

“Yes?” Alice blinked a few times to clear the haze of desire that had settled over her vision like cigarette smoke.

“I’m going to have to ask you to check your bag at the desk before you proceed any further.”

“Oh,” Alice started and glanced down at her partly-hidden bag as if just noticing it. She did not have anything particularly valuable in it- a comb, some loose change, and a few cigarettes she had picked up who knew where- but was reluctant to let the bag go for fear of feeling obligated to make a purchase. Not that she didn’t want anything. It was the opposite; she wanted a great deal too many things to be able to limit herself to just one and thus was hesitant to buy anything at all.

“My bag?” she said, blinking again. “It’s just a little purse…I really couldn’t take anything if I tried!” She forced a laugh and tried to toss her hair flirtatiously, but, forgetting that it had been bobbed, her fingers met only with air.

The clerk’s smile turned cold.

Alice sighed and surrendered her purse, hurrying away from the counter to explore the miniature wonderland in which she was not trapped until she bought something.

But where to begin… She stopped to consider, biting her lip.

Clothing? A mannequin beckoned, boasting of all the latest styles. Electronics? Her family had a telephone, but what she wouldn’t give for her own radio…nobody could force her to listen to broadcasted sermons or classical trash; she could listen to all the jazz and soaps she wanted. Or maybe cosmetics? She knew her aunt would have a fit if she showed up with rouge on her cheeks and, as devilishly fun as it had been to shock her with a skimpy dress and bobbed hair, Alice was not sure if she was daring enough for makeup yet. But perhaps perfume? Even women her aunt considered decent wore that. Or jewelry? Costume jewelry might be a nice addition. Or shoes? Her current pair had been worn through from nights of the Charleston. Or…or…or…the possibilities were endless and her purse sadly finite.

All of a sudden, she was nauseous. Not just the store, but her whole world seemed to be spinning around her mind in frantic swing steps. The catalogue Bible, her hair, the chill of a draught on her bare shoulders, the swish of her dress, her blistered feet, the pounding of her ears from the night’s band (not to mention the pounding in her head as the coffee wore off), her aunt’s disapproving sniffs, her own blush of shame at recalling the man’s comment…but, most of all, her desire.

The whole dizzying world was open to her- well, the catalogs and movies and radio programs claimed it was so- and she wanted it all. Then and there she knew; it was not shame or guilt that she felt, but a desperate yearning to no longer be afraid of disapproval or even of her own antiquated sense of morality. She yearned not to be left behind in the tidal wave of the changing era, to be the bold, independent woman that the world demanded she be.

And to do that, she would need everything. Absolutely everything. She would need to say yes to every item she considered. It was only reasonable. 

Yes to the clothes; hers were rags already.

Yes to the radio; how else to keep up with the times?

Yes to the makeup; to Halifax with ridiculous reservations.

Yes to the perfume, to hiding the smell of smoke and drink; to the jewelry, to faking the wealth she was losing; to the shoes, to dancing when she ought to be sleeping. Yes to it all, to being swept forward in the surge of the Roaring Twenties.

Alice could barely reach for one item before another, brighter one caught her glistening eye. At first, she was dashing to and fro from shelf to shelf, rack to rack, like a rabbit searching for the security of its hole. But, after a while- she had no way of knowing how long it actually was since the pocket watches all ticked different times in their case- Alice ceased her race against herself and froze. She was a girl in a trance, standing with a dress in one hand, shoes in the other. Samples of rouge were dabbed on her face so that she really did look like a “doll.” A necklace hung from one finger and a scarf from the crook of her elbow. In her desire, she had forgotten herself; how was she ever to pay for it all? One scarf perhaps, or maybe the rouge, but all this? She thought in terror of the few coins in her purse, insufficient funds for creating the ideal woman described in the catalogue Bible: a material masterpiece. 

What was she to do? Alice continued to stand frozen in horror at herself. Her head started to pound even harder. She let out a small moan in pain. Why had she drank more than she could handle the night before? And had she eaten since then? Maybe more coffee… Her thoughts blurred together in an indistinct cloud and then all went dark. The cloud burst and the pounding stopped as her head struck against the tile floor with a sharp crack.

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Jess shrugged and handed over her messenger bag to the smiling clerk, but not before slipping her iPhone into the pocket of her skinny jeans. Pulling her beanie farther down over her hair and pushing her thick-framed glasses up her nose, she pressed past the dusty counter and into the antique shop.

It was a fascinating place: a vintage wonderland where, had she not been a broke college student, she could easily have spent every penny to her name. There were old radios and typewriters, makeup compacts and faux-pearl necklaces, even faded magazines and a thick catalogue bearing the fashions of a long-gone decade. Jess paused to flip through its pages, noting that the trends it portrayed were certainly not the eclectic styles of 2016 that she was accustomed to wearing.

As Jess delved deeper into the store, she felt that she was traveling back in time. She liked it. She began to long for all things “vintage.” Despite the iPhone in her pocket, she managed to convince herself that the past was better for what she saw as its simplicity and dignity before she even reached the back wall of the shop. 

She wandered on, coming to the clothing section. In its center was a mannequin, eerily lifelike, dressed in a fringed dress and holding a beaded handbag. It even had a bobbed haircut and shoes that looked well-worn.

“That’s a swell dress,” said Jess to herself, trying out the slang of the 1920s. “I’d like to wear it, even if it is out of date.”

She lingered a few moments more by the mannequin, thinking of how she could go about bringing the past trends back with her into her too-modern era. Where to begin? Her vision blurred. She wiped her glasses, but the haze was not from grime. Rather, it was from the growing desire to live differently, boldly in a revived style. She could not move for this desire and stood rooted in place as its grip tightened on her heart. Her mind whirled as visions of her life and the present world in which she lived blended with her idealized imaginings of Roaring Twenties. Her head started to ache with this whirling. She became dizzy. Her legs were wobbly all of a sudden. And then everything- both the antique shop and the modern world outside- went dark.

That afternoon, the clerk rose to begin his daily inspection and inventory tour. Upon reaching the clothing section, he, still smiling his pasted smile, added another mannequin- this one adorned in a beanie and glasses rather than a dress and dancing shoes- to his once chain store, now antique shop.