Weekend link: pilgrimage to Andalusia.

This beauty deserves a wider audience: a view of Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia homestead through contemporary eyes. The essayist notes some hilarious details along his road that O’Connor herself would have made a field day with, yet the central note of the piece is hushed, even holy:

I drove up the humble lane to the farm and caught sight of the house. “There it is!” I said aloud to no one. I parked in the grass behind the place and wandered around. I had my phone out like an idiot, taking pictures right and left as if amnesia was imminent. I didn’t want to risk it. A woman emerged from the porch and greeted me. “You must be a pilgrim,” she said. I am, how can you tell? “Pilgrims always approach the house differently, with reverence. Take your time. Stay as long as you want. The peafowl are over there.”

Read the whole thing here.

The Actor

The ActorDaniel McInerny has published an intriguing play on the young Karol Wojtyła, now St. John Paul II, focusing on his life as an actor during the Nazi occupation and investigating the question of what it was that led him to forsake his thespian dreams in favor of a priestly vocation.

In a magnificent interview for Relevant Radio with Sheila Liaugminas, McInerny not only discusses his new play but shares some profound insights about culture, faith, and the arts. McInerny and his host delve deep into these topics in a one-hour interview that is well worth the time. Among other questions, McInerny makes a strong case for the importance of the arts in a world where politics seems all-important. In a related article for The Catholic Thing, he puts it thus:

To paraphrase a remark of G.K. Chesterton’s, in building up a culture, one has to build as Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The sword is the weapon of defense. It represents logical argument and public disputation. The trowel is the tool of construction. With the trowel we put up walls and prepare the earth for planting. While the sword keeps invaders out, the trowel creates the new city. And what does the trowel represent? Works of the artistic imagination. Why are such works so important? Because they enable us to contemplate how life should be lived.

Life, as McInerny points out, is made up of choices and acts. As the title of his new play suggests, John Paul II may have left the theater, but he remained the best kind of actor until the day he died.

“Ya Hey” Part II (or, you don’t even say your name)

Onward!

So, to briefly recap from last time (this is a continuation of “Ya Hey” Part I, found here [so read it {things'll, you know, make a hecka lotta more sense if you do}]), we’re talking about the poorly-named Vampire Weekend’s poorly named album Modern Vampires of the City which, in addition to being the worst-named record of 2013 (I mean, seriously), was hailed by media kings Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Slant Magazine and some guy named Robert Christgau as the year’s best. More specifically, we’re getting round to track ten of twelve: a glorious little ballad called “Ya Hey.”

The fact that it appears near the end is no accident, as there’s been a buildup to it through the entire first 80% of the album. As mentioned before, songs like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” have songwriter-vocalist Ezra Koening with his back up against the wall, hackles raised in a white-collared, impeccably-arranged bout of rage/confusion/longing/ultimate defiance against the Triune God. He is, needless to say, a tad anxious of trusting Him.

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But why? What doesn’t he trust God to do? To take care, maybe – to be more than ‘good.’ Merciful, perhaps. To hold everything together. “We worshipped you” he deadpans on the thusly titled song, “only in the way you want it / only on the day you want it…energetic praise you wanted / any kind of praise you wanted” – followed closely by a plaintive afterthought: “won’t we see you once again?” The flippant is always paired with longing for the God he perceives to be absent or indifferent. “Who will guide us in the end?” he asks, closing out the song with the twin senses of disappointment and desire.

Koening’s lyrics always stand with a double edge – but, compellingly enough, where most indie protests appear pastoral (with a barely concealed hostility lurking in the background), Koening’s bitter words can’t ultimately throw off the sense of tenderness he carries towards his Accused. And, having finished the first nine songs (some among which bristling with a few Adonai-directed barbs) he finally drops the mask.

And the gloves. The wisdom teeth are out. Track ten begins with the intimacy reserved for lovers:

“Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything”

There’s no criticism here, no laying into the seemingly neglected responsibilities God owes to His people. All of a sudden the roles are reversed: whereas the tension before was always on what He is or isn’t doing for humanity, here we have the eternal, undeserved Love of God contrasted with the petty inconsistency of human commitment.

But he goes for the throat here: anyone could have remarked on the staggeringly minute levels of love lost on the part of Babylon towards the Creator…but Zion? He’s not just talking about the historic Hebrew people here, he’s talking about us, with our liturgies and hymnals and mission statements and seven highly effective habits and love languages – we’re the ones, in Koening’s estimation, without love. Which is something I deeply, deeply identify with.

Full disclaimer: I made a conscious decision years ago to stop using the word “love” when I talk to people, something that still holds at least for now. Around the time I was eighteen I was going through a shift where I was moving from seeing love-as-feeling to love-as-choice to, finally, Love-as-Person (AKA: God, yo), meaning that, every time I used that four-letter word in ways that fell short of God’s way of Loving (which was, like, all the time), I felt like I was lying somehow. Or at least using the word in a way that sounded like a hollow joke. It’s something I still need to work through but haven’t found a way around yet – it annoys my family to no end and I hope they haven’t felt hurt, which probably can’t be avoided. And I can’t imagine being a dad who doesn’t feel comfortable telling his kids that he loves them (but, fortunately, being a dude who likes dudes while practicing Catholicism kinda puts the kapow to that).

kapow

I digress.

But we’re taught that no one is good but God alone – that no one truly Loves but God alone.

“Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything”

And here’s where Koening’s deeply complex relationship with God really starts to set off some sparks. There’s no doubt about where he says he stands – whether he’s an atheist, agnostic or something in between (¿athnostic?) he’s certainly not a card-carrying congregant of your typical Christian church. He claims unbelief but then, like a man in the confessional, admits that his inability to love somehow stands “in spite of everything.” In spite of what? From the position of a confused postmodern, he admits of reasons to love God back: God’s own love, to start. And His presence in the muck of our indifference. And the sentiments only deepen:

“In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face
There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine.”

Koening recognizes that even though he can’t muster the case to ultimately believe (especially in light of all the things that don’t make sense to him), he still can’t shake the sense of the hidden God behind it all. A benevolence behind the curtain. Nothing solid enough to tell what (or where) it is, but suggestive enough to keep him up at night wondering what holds it all together. The words make me think about the engine in an aging television, the core of a tiny planet, fossilized fingerprints from way, way too long ago.

All of it builds to his most personal confession yet: “And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake…” he sings, and the bitterness of the earlier songs falls away and Koening is left standing with nothing but his vulnerability. He reaches across the divide towards territory he’s not at all comfortable with, to a paradigm that’d change everything in his life, one that’d justify the suspicions he can’t dismiss about the world. He sees it. But those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed as he continues: “…but I let it go.”

Out of the whole song, this is the line that haunts me most. Here we have this guy, a smart, articulate dude who not only has the desire and the empathy to feel for a God he can’t trust to exist, but writes to Him with such tenderness. A guy who admits the possibility that he’s wrong and that maybe in the end there’s a God whose loneliness is worth mourning, whose Love is worth trying to return. He feels it. It confuses him. He lets it shake him. But he let it go, saying “Ya hey.”

Which, as Michael mentioned, is pronounced Yahweh.

Koening is bought to the brink but still can’t step over the edge into the actual Everlasting Arms. And we, who believe, watch on as he continues: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?”

We can!” we might say, but we’re not Ezra Koening – and we don’t know his conditions for belief. It’s a kinda strange passivity we’re left with – we’re the audience to an angst we believe we have answers to, but he’s a world away. So then maybe we think of our own little worlds and the people close to us who, for their own reasons, can’t come to believe – reasons that, to them, are all too legitimate. Maybe we want to plead with them to open their eyes and just see the God we see. Maybe we want to cry out with Koening at the God who stays hidden – at the God who, at times, allows things that make it so hard to find Him. And maybe, even as we open our mouths to complain about one thing or the other, we let ourselves feel small in the face of everything. Mysteries upon mysteries. And the chorus circles round as it continues, repeats. Repeats.

 

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ut deo

 

 

                                                                      Ya hey

 

 

burning-bush

 

 

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Weekend links, craftsmanship edition.

Three quick, related links: watch and marvel at the work of this master penman, Jake Weidmann, in “Forging the Future with the Tip of a Pen,” and of this furniture maker, Harrison Higgins, in “Furniture Fit for the Kingdom.” Both videos are gorgeously shot and contain some powerful stuff on the value of craft and the nature of human creativity. You’ll pick up echoes of Dorothy Sayers (we create because we are made in the image of a Creator) and Wendell Berry (human creative power should be used to make things that are worthy of human dignity). Finally, here is a more ephemeral yet still splendid project by two students at Columbus College of Art and Design. Under the tag of “Dangerdust,” the duo have been creating guerrilla masterpieces out of inspirational quotes on campus chalkboards. (Scroll way down for the Flannery O’Connor installment, complete with peacock feathers.) This last link recently went viral, but even if you’ve already seen it, it rewards a second look. Cheers, and happy weekend!

“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

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NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Same Difference

Robert Bickers, a superb (and superbly readable) historian of the British Empire in China, recently gave an interview to the Shanghaiist website about his newest book. That book—Getting Stuck In for Shanghai—tells the story of a group of British expatriates who sailed from Shanghai to England to join the army at the beginning of World War I, and if you want to learn more about it, you should read the interview. What especially caught my eye, though, was an exchange that pointed toward a more general topic:

[SHANGHAIIST]

I’m interested in the ways in which the Shanghai of the era you write about is similar to the Shanghai of today. Just like then, there is a large foreign expat community in Shanghai today, who are able to lead a social life that is very different from that of the Chinese in the city. Do you see any parallels? How are the foreigners living in Shanghai today similar or different from the ones in the 1910s?

[BICKERS]

There are plenty of superficial parallels to spot, but the underlying relationship is very different of course: foreign expats are subject to Chinese law, unlike their predecessors; and there are no French, or American or British gun boats moored in the Huangpu. That difference actually should make us think a little differently about the old world of Shanghai’s foreign communities: if we strip away all of the things that seem to be similar, what remains? That is the sort of question which interests the historians.

[Emphasis added.]

Here, the interviewer* sees an analogy between the Shanghai of today and the Shanghai of a hundred years ago. Prof. Bickers acknowledges the similarities, but focuses on the differences.  Interviewer and interviewee may emphasize different sides, but they are the two sides of one coin. And every day, we carry some version of that coin in our pockets.

2014.08.19 - DT blog - Same Diff. illustration - square-hexagon-parallelogram

The ability to see—and to articulate—similarities and differences is so basically human it can be easy to take for granted. But precisely because this ability is so basically human—and, incidentally, because it can be so useful—it deserves attention. To mangle Chesterton, “If a thing is impossible not to do, it is worth doing better.”  At the least, it is worth understanding better.

Aristotle, following Plato, appreciated the power and importance of our capacity for comparison and contrast. He taught that classifying and defining the things in the world is a necessary step toward understanding them. In broad terms (that I invite any Aristotelians or Thomists to correct in the comment section below), Aristotelian definitions include at least two parts. The first part involves comparison; the second, contrast. As Robin Smith puts it in the article “Aristotle’s Logic” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A species is defined by giving its genus [. . .] and its differentia [. . .]: the genus is the kind under which the species falls, and the differentia tells what characterizes the species within that genus. As an example, human might be defined as animal (the genus) having the capacity to reason (the differentia).

We do something like this, with a little less philosophical or scientific rigor, multiple times per day: Not only the journalist who compares Shanghai in 1914 and 2014, or the historian who hunts for the telling contrasts, but also the athlete practicing until the right technique becomes second nature; the lawyer analyzing helpful and harmful precedents; and the grocery shopper thumping produce, are all checking things or events against each other, alert to the similarities and differences between them.

So, too, are engaged patrons of any art (and serious consumers of any form of entertainment!), who often (and, often, reflexively) compare and contrast—at the levels of deep themes and of surface details alike—the works they have taken in.

At his long-running blog Disputations, Tom Kreitzberg shows what can happen when an attentive reader of Scripture applies his natural ability for analogy and distinction to the inspired text. Mr. Kreitzberg considers the Gospel reading for this past Sunday (Roman Rite, Ordinary Form), the story of Jesus exorcizing the Caananite woman’s daughter, alongside the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. Rather than try to “strip away” the stories’ similarities (the better to apprehend the differences between them), Kreitzberg here lines up the similarities between the two stories in order to “abstract out” a common insight they contain.

Whether our thoughts are on matters sacred or profane, our minds can’t help but turn them into matter for comparisons and contrasts, analogies and distinctions. The sacred and the profane have that much, at least, in common.


* Prof. Bickers’ Shanghaiist interviewer, Yining Su, also interviewed Catholic cartoonist Gene Luen Yang about Yang’s recent–and heavily Catholic–graphic novel, Boxers and Saints. An earlier Yang book, The Eternal Smile: Three Stories, received a very positive review in the Mary Queen of Angels 2010 issue of Dappled Things.
Hot prayer tip: Exploring analogies and  distinctions among the various Mysteries can be an excellent method for meditating on the Rosary.

* * *

John P. Liêm is a Lay Dominican with a J.D. that he tries to use for good, not evil. He has begun writing a verse adaptation of Crime and Punishment in Onegin sonnet-stanzas.

On Burning Your Selfies

As part of my research for a family memoir, I found myself in Colombia a couple of years ago interviewing relatives about my great-grandfather’s life. The memoir was inspired by a manuscript he left behind, in which he narrates a series of amazing episodes from his life in early to mid 20th century Colombia. While my great-grandfather left a lot of material for me to work with, there remained some significant gaps, since the manuscript tends to focus on his most exciting and outlandish memories. It does make for great reading, yet one is left wondering about some of the most important aspects of his life, which to him seem to have been so obvious as to not require putting down on paper. In particular, I needed my relatives to give me more details about his wife, my great-grandmother, whom it is clear from the writing that he adored, and yet about whom he gives few specifics, except for the constant mention of her “ensnaring eyes.” While the manuscript left me with a very strong sense of who he was, the woman who was his lifelong love remained a mystery to me. I felt that if I was going to proceed with the memoir, this was a gap I needed to fill.

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My great-grandparents, Rafael Eduardo García Luque and María Luisa García Martínez.

Digging through closets and the minds of my relatives yielded an abundance of old photographs, stories, and even more writings from my great-grandfather. Through them, I started forming a mental picture of my great-grandmother, but what I really wanted was to get a sense of who she was in her own words. Yet as I kept looking, not a single letter she had penned turned up. This might not have surprised me in another context, but the Garcías are nothing short of addicted to family memorabilia. Surely she had written something that someone had lovingly kept?

Determined to find what I needed, I scheduled a meeting with about fifteen relatives who had known her. I was asking my great aunt for details of her parents’ engagement, when at last, finding herself at a loss, she unveiled the mystery for me.

“It’s a pity,” she said, “after Papá died, she took all the letters they had ever written to each other and burned them.”

She did what? I barely avoided responding to my elderly aunt with an expletive. This was the treasure trove I was looking for! How, how could she have just burned it?

For a long time, I struggled to understand her decision. It seemed pointless and wasteful to me. Why destroy the record of a life and a love story that her descendants would probably have cherished for generations? What good had it been to put her thoughts and feelings down on paper only to turn them into ash? Her marriage to my great-grandfather could have lived on indefinitely through those letters—how could she let those memories just disappear?

My frustration over her actions lasted until a couple of weeks ago, when for some reason I found myself thinking again about what she had done. It suddenly occurred to me that the burning of her letters was the exact contradiction of the modern obsession with posting one’s life on social media. Rather than taking some mundane event or offhand thought—let alone an awkward selfie—and making it public, she had taken what I can only imagine was a deep and significant part of her life and declared it private for all time.

I thought then of the way many of us can behave these days when going on vacation. We’re lying under a palm tree on some glorious beach, away from it all, a glimmering ocean before us—except we can’t see it because we’re too busy posting pictures of it on Instagram. And it doesn’t happen only during vacations. How many of us have not found ourselves at some point of the day considering something we might do or say from the point of view of its Facebook potential? Are we actually living, or has our life become so much research for potential posts?

Self-consciousness is one of the great gifts of being human, but it doesn’t come without its costs. Social media poses the danger of making us our own paparazzi, thus turning any moment which otherwise we might have simply lived—lived authentically—into an occasion for “crafting our brand.” A wealth of research has established that when extrinsic rewards are introduced into an activity, intrinsic motivations die off. When we live to post, we can begin losing our ability to enjoy our actions for their own sake—even our basic pleasures. A great meal seems less delicious when our friends fail to admire the picture of it we shared. Our actions suddenly lose their meaning without the “likes” to vindicate their existence.

I think that long before the existence of the Internet, my great-grandmother knew this. I think that in burning her letters, she was protecting her marriage. I think she was declaring—not to the world, but to herself—that what she had lived with her husband was good in itself, that its worth did not depend on anyone else’s approval or remembrance.

A book is not the same thing as a Facebook update, but to the aspiring memorist, hers is not a comfortable lesson to hear.

Vampire Weekend Contra Mundum

Or, if that title isn’t clever enough

 Vampire Weekend Feels a Twitch Upon the Thread

As a confirmed hipster with snobbish inclinations, I often bore houseguests by handing them a home-brewed ale and forcing them to admire the sound of vinyl records spinning on my vintage turntable. A record that has been in frequent rotation is Vampire Weekend’s 2nd album, Contra, music that is delightfully energetic and engaging. The lyrics have always been clever and particularly appeal to me because they humorously describe locales in New England in which I have spent quite a bit of time (Yes, Hyannisport can be a drag). It’s always been a bit of a lark, though, which is fine, because sometimes in life we don’t need to be put through an emotional wringer to encounter good art. There is greatness in the talent of a humorist, something serious in a laugh.

For all of us, though, there is a season for everything, and for Vampire Weekend it is time to get introspective. In an article in the New York Times of May 18, 2013 entitled “Setting Their Sights On Wider Vistas,” lyricist Ezra Koenig says that he has come to see the band’s 3rd album, Modern Vampires in the City, as the completion of a trilogy. He then says something I would never in a million years have expected to come from a pop singer about his work, “It reminded me of ‘Brideshead Revisited.’” It reminded him of Brideshead! When asked to name my favorite novel, I cannot get the words “Brideshead Revisited” out of my mouth quickly enough to display my enthusiasm for Evelyn Waugh’s book. I will hound every single acquaintance for the rest of their lives until they both read the book and watch the miniseries starring Jeremy Irons. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful, and difficult piece of work. Not the stuff of your typical pop song.

Koenig goes on, explaining, “The naïve joyous school days in the beginning. Then the expansion of the world, travel, seeing other places, learning a little bit more about how people live. And then the end is a little bit of growing up, starting to think more seriously about your life and your faith. If people could look at our three albums as a bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.”

The earlier work by Vampire Weekend corresponds to the first half of Waugh’s Book, a time of carefree living in Arcadia, new friendships, and the glamour of the English aristocracy. In time, the life of each member of the Brideshead family is complicated: Sebastian’s by alcoholism, Lord Marchmain’s by the prospect of an unprovided death without last rites, Julia’s by divorce and the guilt of living in adultery, and through it all is friend of the family, Charles, who is constantly searching for meaning. After a long absence, the Great War brings Charles back to a now abandoned Brideshead, the world is shattering, a proud family dissipated, and he has seen these halls before.

Earlier in the book, Charles declares loyalty to his embattled friend, fervently affirming, “No, I’m with you, Sebastian contra mundum.” The two men know that they are against the world. The vain hope of wealth and luxury, education and travel, career and women, these have all been shown to be shallow and unworthy. And yet, they do not know precisely what it is that they do want.

Vampire Weekend express much the same sentiment. They are world weary. They are on the lookout for something more, but remain conflicted by the hiddenness of God. In the song “Ya Hey” (Get it? Yahweh!) Koenig sings “America don’t love you/So I could never love you/In spite of everything” In “Unbelievers,” he sings, “…what holy water contains a little drop, a little drop for me?” In the end, is the band converted? Is Charles Ryder converted? The answer is never that easy, for the ways of the divine are mysterious and the human will is frequently late to love that which is lovely. Have no fears, though, this is the pilgrimage we all make. In Brideshead, Julia cries, “I’ve always been bad.  Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God…” Perhaps, she says, it is the case that, “however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.”  The song “Arrow” ends with these words, “Oh it’s no use at all/But that life in the Church could still remain.” Indeed, for all of us in any situation, in a darkening world, the altar lamp still burns brightly.

Brideshead Chapel

 

 

(With advancing years, my hipster credentials are slipping a bit and I missed the release of Modern Vampires in the City by almost a full year and am only now listening to it. The blog “Unpleasant Accents” has shown itself to be the true fan by beating me to this topic, writing on Koenig’s words about Brideshead Revisited back in the spring. I heartily recommend checking out their thoughts: http://unpleasantaccents.blogspot.com/2014/02/vampire-weekend-waugh-revisited.html )

Four Lessons I Learned From Bifocals

For the record, I am way too young to be wearing bifocals. When I brought the prescription to the lady who sold me the glasses, she did a double take and said, “Are you sure this is correct?” Unfortunately, it was.

Technically, my glasses are not “bifocals” but “progressive lenses,” which sounds a lot less like I need to apply for an AARP card, but nobody knows what it means. “Do they change colors when you move from sunlight to indoors?” No. Nothing so fancy. They just help me see. The distance prescription is at the top, moving seamlessly toward the close-up prescription at the bottom, gradually changing magnification (or whatever the proper optometric term might be.) The result is that, as long as I don’t try to look at things from crazy angles–say, watching TV while lying flat on the floor–the world remains nicely in focus, just as if I had never left my good old single-vision life behind.

It works, but the transition period is like wandering through a fun house built by Stephen King. I went to the optometrist because of eye strain and headaches; I left with even more eyestrain and full-out migraines, complete with all the trimmings. Re-training one’s brain to see the world in distance-specific segments, then asking it to add them together into a coherent whole, is seriously painful. New synapses don’t come cheap when you’re old enough to need bifocals.

optical illusion Lesson #1: Only your brain can change your mind.

We often forget how dependent we are on that squishy gray stuff upstairs to separate truth from illusion. We have no perception apart from the brain, and the brain is a physical object requiring physical change in order to see things differently. No matter how blurry or false our original perception, there are still migraines that have to happen before a person can accept a new point of view.

  Thankfully, the migraines finally subsided, and my eyes stopped going into open rebellion every time I switched to my old single-vision sunglasses. (I couldn’t afford to replace them. This progressive stuff is expensive.) However, for months after chopping vegetables and using a computer became comfortable, the field of vision for reading still appeared to be about the size of a quarter. I couldn’t even get a whole page into focus without moving either my head or the book. Have you ever tried to get lost in a story while constantly fighting your own eyes? I promise, it doesn’t work very well.

 Lesson #2: The things we’re closest to are the hardest to see clearly.salt

This is an old one: no forest for the trees. But, again, if we stop to think about the way our eyes are programmed, we might also find a little insight into our minds. See those things that look like boulders next to this paragraph? They’re really salt and pepper grains under a microscope. When we get too close, our brains tell us that molehills are mountains, and we have no way to combat that daunting perception except to step away.

  With enough practice, my reading difficulties were finally resolved, and I have devoured a few rather good novels in recent weeks. Time proved once again that it cures all things.

whirlpool eyeLesson #3: Your brain will accept anything as reality if you stare at it long enough.

No matter what kind of multi-focal craziness you attempt to impose on it, your gray matter will eventually cave and start sending you signals that this is the way the world should be. So be careful what you stare at.

  Now that I am acclimated to life with bifocals, is everything rosy and crystal clear? Mostly. I am seeing better than I did before, but there are still moments when it is impossible to look at something through the proper part of the lens–when my children climb on me and their faces go all fuzzy, or when I have to reach things in low cabinets or over my head. There is no way to avoid all the crazy angles.

mirror darklyLesson #4: Some things will always be blurry.

We only view this life but darkly, through a glass. My vision may sometimes seem sharp and perfect, but I hope I can let the blurriness make me grateful, and remind me always to pray for better glasses.

Mary, marigolds, and mercy: an Assumption reflection.

My garden right now, before the autumn crops burgeon, is a wilderness of overloaded tomato vines reeling off their stakes and unpruned marigolds throwing out blooms like scattered pennies. They seem to thrive on neglect; they reward minimal effort with an abundant harvest. What, I wonder, would they do for a careful gardener? So I Googled proper ways of caring for my marigolds and found that they are associated with today’s feast, and with Mary in general. They were blessed at Mass on this day in the past, along with other herbs and flowers known to have healing properties.

Because I’d rather read than garden, this search also led me to Eugenia Collier’s short story “Marigolds“, concerning a young African American woman and her community in pre-Civil-Rights-Era America. Apparently it’s often anthologized and taught in literature courses, but I’ve only now discovered it and found it perfect reading for this feast day. To my mind Mary is silently everywhere in it, as it deals with themes of beauty, repentance, and what it means for a woman to deal maturely with sorrow and injustice and human suffering. In Mary, innocence and compassion coexist, as the narrator posits they cannot in ordinary humans. Mary is wisdom without sin; she stands against evil yet stands in favor of us weak, broken humans at every moment. As the mother of Jesus, she is the mother of mercy. So in light of the story’s last line, in light of my neglected garden, I am now seeing marigolds as a symbol of mercy: the beauty given in response to our repentance, despite our total lack of deserving.