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 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.

Half Cadence

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

An audio recording of this article is available here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, how about some poetry?

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

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

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

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Which Question are You? On the Art of Asking

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It’s no accident that one of Instagram’s most popular features enables followers to ask questions of each other. Everyone loves being asked about themselves, not necessarily out of pride, but because, as human beings made for community, we naturally feel most supported when others express an active interest in our lives. Practicing the art of asking—in addition to truly active and empathetic listening—may become a powerful way to develop this interpersonal curiosity through conversation.

What. When. Where. How. Why. Who.

It seems that there are two key groups of questions, the first being the details: what, when, and where.

And the second group being the development: how, who, and why.

I have been trying to ask more questions in general, but it recently occurred to me that it’s not always about asking more questions or even about asking better questions, but about asking the right kinds of questions.

I feel best known, for instance, when people ask what I am working on, what I like to do in my free time, what I hope for in the next year. And I feel most valued when people seem genuinely interested and appreciative of what I do. Likewise, I tend to ask people what they are working on and am more prone to ask about people’s projects and careers than their feelings, though I am doing my best to grow in this area.

Similarly, I also tend to ask when and where because, being a planner and something of a perfectionist, I like to know what to expect and how to best be prepared. As a result, I often ask people where they like to study and when I can expect to see them again; for me, these questions are about forming a solid plan to facilitate future meetings and foster companionship.

Rather than simply recognizing my preferred questions and forcing other people to cater to my personality, though, I hope to use this realization to better engage with others in dialogue and relationship. Recognizing that someone I love is more of a “who/why” questioner will help me ask better questions about his/her relationships, motivators, and goals, ultimately deepening our communication and understanding.

Again, this is not a comprehensive theory by any means, nor will I create a catchy quiz to help you all sort out new identities based on the 5 Ws and 1 H (there are too many competing numbers and letter combinations out there already anyway). I do think, though, that the following may prove helpful to those of you who, like me, find yourself struggling to know what to say—or better, what to ask.

Questions and Tendencies:

What: From my personal experience, people who ask what-based questions tend to be focused, task-oriented, and pragmatic. They want the facts and checklists and step-by-step plans for success. However, these people are likely to also be highly-conceptual, potentially more interested in understanding theories and projects than relationships or emotions. To encourage these individuals, consider asking about their current pet projects, and offering positive comments about their work.

Where/When: I’ve grouped these together as they are both centered on planning and preparation. Again, from my experience, these askers are often regimented individuals who value foresight and preparation. Alternately, these individuals may be prone to worry; asking about time and place may be a way of creating a less-anxious future. Continually asking where or when-based questions may be a way of easing the stress of scheduling, securing quality time in relationships, and/or voicing expectations.

Who: I love people who ask who-based questions because they inspire me in their care for others. These askers are likely very caring and relational, even asking about the friends of friends of friends in an effort to get to know someone through their social circle. They will likely want others to show the same care for their community and appreciate it when others check in on their loved ones as well. These individuals thrive on questions that foster deeper companionship and a broader sense of community.

How: There are two types of “how” questions: emotional and technical. Those who ask “How are you?” and follow up with specific inquiries about a person’s wellbeing are demonstrating a more emotionally-aware version of how-based questions. More akin to when/where/what askers are those who ask “How?” in order to gain practical insight into the method by which something is accomplished. Both versions, however, can evidence an intrinsic curiosity and desire for deeper knowledge which I admire. (Interestingly, “knowledge” itself carries a similar dual nature as we can know about a person or thing, or genuinely seek to know a person or thing.) Askers of both types will appreciate reciprocated curiosity and active listening.

Why: More than once, I’ve been frustrated by someone daring to ask me “Why?” because this question cuts to the heart of the others. Those who are careless with it may come across as cynics, while those who never ask it may lack discernment. Those who ask why-based questions often are value-driven, desiring to act in accordance with their well-considered ideals. Asking why-based questions of another person can either express interest in or challenge their fundamental motivations, so it must be approached with sensitivity. However, this may render “Why?” the most telling question of all, and those who ask it tactfully may learn a great deal about others and themselves.

So, what do you think of this idea? Or, maybe, who do you think of when reading this? Or, where/when do you see this being applicable in your life? How do you think this little thought-project may be helpful?

For once, the “Why?” of the matter is simple. Why write or read or share this article? Why consider the different ways in which we ask questions?

Why? Because, I hope, we desire to be better equipped to communicate effectively, care personally, and connect meaningfully, and asking the right kind of questions might just be a good way to start. We might practice leaning into the questions that we naturally ask well—with good questions leading to more, deeper questions—as well as broaden our curiosity to encompass the full range of asking.

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.

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.

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.