September 30, 2011

Why Busy People Need Poetry

This has been one of the busiest weeks I've had since finishing college. I've gone from Zero to Teacher in five days, taking on three private tutoring jobs in writing and literature. While these are things I absolutely love, the switch from studying English to teaching it is a big one. It's been a week-long crash course in educational methods and curriculum planning. This is what my floor looks like at the moment.

In the midst of these hectic times, I would not survive without a few moments of peace and quiet--green pastures and quiet waters, so to speak. One of those is a little blue book given me by a dear friend for graduation. It is entitled "One Hundred and One Famous Poems" and was published in 1929. I read one or two every night before bed, relaxing in the measured and meaningful words of Longfellow and Emerson.

Surprisingly, though, what jumped out at me this week was the preface, by editor Roy J. Cook. It contains a succinct reminder of why people living in a fast-paced world need poetry. I here reproduce it.

This is the age of science, of steel--of speed and the cement road. The age of hard faces and hard highways. Science and steel demand the medium of prose. Speed requires only the look-the gesture. What need, then, for poetry?

Great need!

There are souls, in these noise-tired times, that turn aside into unfrequented lanes, where the deep woods have harbored the fragrances of many a blossoming season. Here the light, filtering through perfect forms, arranges itself in lovely patterns for those who perceive beauty.

It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, encourage.

 If Mr. Cook said this of the world of 1929, I can't imagine what he'd think of 2011--or of the state of my floor. Yet I found his words true. This week, I understood what "noise-tired times" meant.

Poetry has been my pocket-sized chance to escape into the woods and remember beauty.

September 22, 2011

On Love Triangles, Marionettes, and Integers

For over a year, one of my dearest friends has been on my case to read the classic Cyrano de Bergerac. Last week, I finally did. Apologies to my family for the late-night laughter coming from my room. Rarely have I been so entertained or moved by 218 pages of humor, sorrow, swashbuckling, poetry, and romance.

The play was written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. The title character was based on the true Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a 17th-century Renaissance man who, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, not only fought over 1000 duels, but also wrote comedies, satires, and even two science fiction novels.

Cyrano is a story of a (lopsided) love triangle: one woman, two men, and a nose. 

Cyrano de Bergerac is a brilliant French cadet with an enormous nose and an even bigger heart. He loves the beautiful Roxane, but she is in love with Christian, a cadet with a handsome face, but no gift for words. Cyrano lends Christian his eloquence to help him woo Roxane, displaying the strength of his character and the depth of his love. In some ways, it is a Beauty and the Beast story, reminding us that true beauty is found within.

Many of us live as slaves to appearance. I am often paralyzed by the fear of what other people think of me, allowing their opinions, tastes, and expectations (real or imagined) to steer me like an autopilot. If I don’t make conscious resistance, I dance like a marionette on their strings. But Cyrano doesn’t.

Accustomed to ridicule because of his nose, Cyrano ignores people’s censure or praise as the guide of his actions. He holds fast to his own compass, doing what he knows to be right regardless of what other people think. When his friend Le Bret urges him to compromise for the sake of a little fortune and glory, he retorts,  

“But what would I have to do? Cover myself with the protection of some powerful patron? Imitate the ivy that licks the bark of a tall tree while entwining itself around its trunk, and make my way upward by guile…No, thank you…I may not rise very high, but I’ll climb alone!” (II.VIII).

The best word I can find for this character trait is integrity. The word comes from the Latin integer, meaning whole. Cyrano is a solid and undivided person because he does not compromise. He does not sell pieces of himself in the marketplace of approval. No one else pulls his strings. When a nobleman criticizes his appearance, Cyrano responds:

“I don’t dress like a fop, it’s true, but my moral grooming is impeccable...I may not cut a stylish figure, but I hold my soul erect” (I.IV).

Others may shun Cyrano like a social leper, but he is able to recognize and respect himself. He knows who he is. He suggests that because of his integrity, God will know him too.

“When I go to meet God this evening, and doff my hat before the holy gates, my salute will sweep the blue threshold of heaven, because I’ll still have one thing intact, without a stain…” (V.VI).

I find that inner wholeness, regardless of outward appearance, very winsome. Beauty and the Beast stories like this one remind me that God finds such substance winsome as well: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).

May we follow after the man with the long nose, resisting the pull of the autopilot to pursue wholeness. 

Have thoughts on integrity? What's your take on Cyrano de Bergerac? I'd love to hear from you!

September 15, 2011

What are you waiting for?

Last Sunday as I was running out the door to church, almost forgetting my shoes in the process, I paused to watch something happening through the kitchen window. A bright-orange, brand-new butterfly was perched on a branch in the sunshine. It sat perfectly still, only occasionally adjusting the position of its wings toward the sun.

I remembered raising a box kit of monarch butterflies when I was in third grade. My brother and I fed the caterpillars leaves, watched them spin chrysalides, and waited impatiently until they emerged as beautiful winged creatures. I remember observing then that butterflies can’t fly immediately after bursting out of the chrysalis. Their wings are still curled up tightly. If they try to fly right away, they fall. First they have to sit and stretch for a while, letting their wings unfurl and absorb sunlight before they can take off. Their first job is to be still.

I’m not very good at being still. I’m goal-oriented and task-oriented; I want to move, act, write, and then quantify my progress with a spreadsheet of results. But sometimes, even when I’ve worked hard, life stalls in the starting gate. For me, sometimes that’s a blog post that won’t come out right. Sometimes it’s the address that still matches my mom’s, the still-anemic bank account, another lonely Valentine’s Day, an economy that doesn’t look kindly on English majors, or a novel that still looks like raw meat. You know the feeling? God, am I going anywhere? When is my life going to start? It’s like drifting in a ship at sea with no wind to fill your sails. Sailors call it the doldrums.

That’s when I hear Him whisper: Be still and know that I am God.

When my life is zooming along busily, He often gets lost in a shuffle of papers. Sometimes He has to put my life on hold to make me stop. Breathe. Remember Him. Knowing Him is the best thing in life. A job, an apartment of my own—those are things I want, but they can wait. When my pursuit of them gets in the way of my pursuit of Him, sometimes He has to tell the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!”

Maybe waiting is actually a form of action when I’m waiting upon the Lord. It’s not the same as twiddling my thumbs for the wind to pick up. Times of stillness can be times of growth, opportunities to know Him better, necessary for my wings to unfurl in the light of His presence. Be still and know that I am God. There will come a time for flying, but right now my labor is to wait upon Him.

I choose today to be still, in echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah: I will wait for the Lord…I will put my trust in Him.

Image credit: HaarFager at en.wikipedia 

September 9, 2011


Why am I starting a blog?

Well, there are the pragmatic reasons of wanting to build a portfolio (almost required for someone seeking writing/editing work, especially freelance) and wanting to keep my writing muscles in shape in a forum that doesn’t print rejection letters.

Besides those, I guess the reason I write anything to publish, rather than just journaling privately, is because I’ve been given a candle to carry, a gift of words to share. I didn’t earn it or ask for it. I’ve worked to hone it, but the gift came from God, as did the responsibility to use it, rather than hide it under a bowl.

It’s scary for me to share my work, because it puts my deepest thoughts and feelings, my very self, up for criticism, which stings bitterly. But really, it’s not supposed to be about me.

Yesterday I was reading an illustration in Soren Kierkegaard's Purity Of Heart Is To Will One Thing, about a woman who stitches a decorative altar cloth. She puts great care into her sewing, but is "deeply distressed if someone should make the mistake of looking at her art, instead of at the meaning of the cloth."

Like that woman, I want my work to be a window, not a mirror. My writing shouldn't draw attention to itself, reflecting your gaze back to me, like a mirror. I want it to be a window: sometimes it is smudged, cracked, fogged, or streaked with condensation, but if it is sometimes transparent enough that you can catch even glimpses of distant illuminations through it, I will have succeeded.

I hope that my words and thoughts—surprises gleaned from writing, reading, cooking, praying, hiking, doing laundry—will somehow be of help or hope to you in your daily walk.