Connotations of “culture.”

As my friend measures the flour into the starter, a little clump of dough in a clean green-labeled Kalamata olive jar, she gives me instructions on how to replicate what she’s doing. “Every time you go to bake, feed it and divide it. Put half in your batch and half in a jar, and put the jar back in the fridge.” This will let the bacterial culture responsible for raising my bread divide and thrive.

How long does it last, I ask her. “Your lifetime,” she says. “Of course it can get too funky to be repaired, and then you’ll have to start over. But if you take good care of it and are lucky—” She shrugs: who knows how long?

That morning we had attended Mass together at a parish perched on the edge of a wild American river: in a crumbling Midwestern town, between railroad tracks and factories, a miniature Italianate church all newly renovated in local steel and stone. Its German glass windows and Italian marble altars, lovingly tended, gleam like jewels. Here again: replication, growth, nourishment—culture. Dividing and thriving.

Our children, too, thrive without our fully knowing how. Some are babies, others have grown tall; the tall ones sit together in the grass and chatter. “We are robins,” they say; “we are building our nests.” Who are they becoming? Who knows who they will be?

While we watch them, we sit and talk. It takes patience and a certain habit of being to approach other minds in a different mood from your own and turn that encounter, in the moment, into an exchange that is fruitful for all parties. It isn’t exactly art, or if it is, it’s a type of performance art, once pursued by the sort of people who used to be known as “cultivated.” I don’t excel at it; many writers don’t; more often our successes in building culture are achieved alone, trying to reach others who are also alone, trying to build a bridge. But sometimes not. Sometimes there is a small victory: a synthesis.

“[The Kingdom of heaven] is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. . . . [It] is as if a man should cast seed into the earth, And should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear.” (Luke 13:21; Mark 4:26-28)

Los Angeles Re-Certifies Itself

Art (both good and bad) often catches (intentionally or incidentally)—and so helps document (to varying degrees of accuracy)—details of the place and the time in which it is made.

" Gin Lane" by William Hogarth - Reprint from circa 1880 in uploader's possession. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gin Lane, by William Hogarth (1751)

"Doll Festival" by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849) - Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-1328432-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/212955. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Doll Festival, by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1802)

This is as true of cinema as of the other arts: Movies, both good and bad, are always at least a little bit “about” the times and places in which they are written, designed, and edited. When the camera leaves the studio set and goes on location, movies are especially – if sometimes inadvertently – about when and where they are shot.

Cinema came into its own, as an art form and an industry, in the early 20th century—and during its first hundred years, its home was Los Angeles. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1947, after his brief Hollywood sojourn,

It is [the film technicians’] fault that the studios are […] 3,000 miles from the world’s theatrical centre in New York, 6,000 miles from the intellectual centres of London and Paris. They came here because in the early days they needed the sun. Now almost all photography is done by artificial light. The sun serves only to enervate and stultify. But by now the thing has become too heavy to move.[1]

***

Binx Bolling, the moviegoer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes “a phenomenon of moviegoing” that he calls “certification”:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.[2]

Binx, a 1950s New Orleanian, detects the excitement of a fellow New Orleanian as they watch a movie shot on location in New Orleans. 2010s Los Angeles, unlike 1950s New Orleans, has featured in movies for a century now–sometimes as an unnamed Anywhere; sometimes standing in for some other Somewhere; and, with increasing frequency from the 1940s onward, as its own kind of Somewhere, a sometimes haphazard, sometimes deliberate mix of representation and misrepresentation.

Recently, Meredith McCann wrote in this space about the changing rural landscape of Northern California. Movies, as an inadvertent consequence of the film industry’s concentration in Los Angeles, have ended up documenting the changing urban landscape of Southern California.

Still from Los Angeles Plays Itself; retrieved from the Cinefamily website, here.

Still from Los Angeles Plays Itself; retrieved from the Cinefamily website, here.

This insight—that watching movies carefully can reveal information about Los Angeles—forms the basis of Thom Andersen’s video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, due for release on DVD and “all digital platforms” between September 30 and October 14. (I had the good fortune to catch a screening earlier this week.) “Documentary” is not quite the word for it, since it contains very little original footage: Most of its 170 minutes consist of selections from movies (old and new, good and bad) spliced to accompany narration written by CalArts instructor Andersen and delivered deadpan by fellow filmmaker Encke King. The effect is something like watching a highbrow, casually Leftist Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon with extra-dry jokes. If that sounds good to you; if you think you can handle some fleeting violence, nudity, foul language, and movie-plot spoilers; if you enjoy this fairly representative clip (which does contain some movie spoilers); and if you have 170 minutes to spare (not necessarily all in one sitting), you might want to seek it out. It’s a very personal vision–not objective, not exhaustive, not magisterial, not always persuasive, but thoroughly researched and thoroughly interesting. (Also thorough is Sound on Sight‘s essay on Andersen’s video essay, available here for those who want to read more.)

Cities that have featured in literature for hundreds of years–Paris, London, New York–already have their own written analogues to the situation of Los Angeles on film. (And indeed, there are already plenty of literary Los Angeleses to read about.) Perhaps, in the future, as the amount of capital required to make a movie diminishes, and the industry disperses from its historic center in Los Angeles, other cities and regions will grow their own hyper-abundant crops of varied cinematic self-depictions.  If so, consider Los Angeles Plays Itself a preview of coming attractions.


[1] Evelyn Waugh, “Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement,” in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), 36.

[2] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967), 63.

How God Changes Your Brain

How God Changes Your BrainTwo ways to stay healthy I learned from this book: drink caffeine and yawn a lot.

How can I not give it a thumbs up?

How God Changes Your Brain is a collaboration between neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman. I first became acquainted with Dr. Newberg’s work in 2002 when I read Why God Won’t Go Away (co-authored with Dr. Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause). It captured my imagination so much that, being in film school at the time, I contacted Dr. Newberg and enlisted his help in writing a screenplay based on his work. Needless to say, I was excited to pick up How God Changes Your Brain.

As expected, the book is eye-opening and challenging, though it is also a bit of a hodge-podge. Part research paper, part guide to neurological health, part how-to meditation manual, the actual discussion of how God changes your brain takes up only a fraction of the text. For purposes of this blog, I will focus on the research because it is, to me, both the most interesting and the most problematic part of the book. That being said, I think everyone could benefit from the health and meditation sections’ practical advice.

Newberg and Waldman studied the effects of religious practices on both the individual psyche and the social world by combining brain-scan techniques, survey responses, and studies in which participants were asked to draw their conceptions of God. To greatly oversimplify, the conclusion is that God is Good for your mental, physical, and spiritual health, as well as for your relationships. The tradition God comes from does not seem to matter (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.), although the way in which you perceive God’s “personality” (benevolent, vengeful, etc.) matters greatly.

The importance of this kind of work in a world that is becoming overtly hostile to religion, where God and Science are perceived as enemies, cannot be overstated. In the first chapter, the authors directly challenge the views of writers like Richard Dawkins who have argued that religious beliefs are both personally and societally dangerous. How refreshing to hear respected scientists insist, “The evidence is not there.”

[A]s we will highlight throughout this book, most research… finds religion either neutral or beneficial when it comes to physical and emotional health. The enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear–be it secular, religious, or political.

Amen and Hallelujah to that.

How God Changes Your Brain is written for a secular audience, and the lens through which the authors view their findings is also secular. However, the work suffers from being written with an oddly dichotomous perspective, the result (I think) of having two authors who hold fundamentally different beliefs. Dr. Newberg ascribes to no particular tradition but “harbors the hope and feeling that God may actually exist,” while Mr. Waldman “finds science more satisfying and mysterious than philosophy or theology.” (Italics are his.) Thus we have a book that simultaneously argues, “Meditation can be separated from its spiritual roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement,” and, “If you incorporate your ethical, spiritual, or religious beliefs into [meditation] practices, they can become even more meaningful and experientially rich.” This tension exists throughout: the need to validate that belief in God is healthy versus the need to validate that atheists can be healthy, too. If the authors had kept in mind that neurological health is not the goal of religious prayer, but rather a side-effect, they could have saved themselves a lot of rhetorical dancing.

The book also falls into a lot of the usual secular humanist potholes: promotion of relativism and divorcing spirituality from religion; a very narrow definition of tolerance; denunciation of seeking to convert others to one’s own point of view while doing exactly that. Worst, in my opinion, is that when the authors discuss the various “personalities” of God, they equate a “biblical God,” (especially in the Old Testament) with an “authoritarian God,” but never with a benevolent or mystical God. These guys need to read the Psalms and the Song of Songs, pronto.

If you can get past all that, however, How God Changes Your Brain is still the kind of mental food that will make you grow new dendrites. When was the last time you stopped to ponder how genetics and evolution have affected your faith (or lack thereof)? Did you know that speaking in tongues creates a dialogue, thus reinforcing the separateness of self and God, while meditation tends to blur the distinction entirely? With such tantalizing headings as “The Chemical Nature of God,” “Is God Primarily a Feeling or an Idea?,” and “Is There a God Neuron In Your Brain?,” the book is rich with insight into the effects the search for truth and meaning have on our existence. If I were a theologian, I would, no doubt, be embarking upon a Theology of the Brain right now… but I am not a theologian. Sigh. I shall have to be content to ponder, grapple, and pray. As Dr. Newberg says in the epilogue, “If you let your curiosity and compassion play with all the possibilities, then you’ll enrich your life, and hopefully improve the world.”

The Little Oratory

Guest post by Tacy Williams Beck

The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home
by Leila Marie Lawler and David Clayton
Sophia Institute Press, 2014
224 pp.; $17.20
ISBN: 1622821769

American culture today has not only become increasingly secular, but it can often seem angry, selfish, lazy, and even violent on many levels. In this context, Leila Marie Lawler and David Clayton’s new book, The Little Oratory, is a breath of fresh air. Published as a large, handsome paperback with a crisp gold and blue cover and whimsical drawings throughout, this deceptively simple book about creating small prayer altars in the home is really a wonderful guide for how to embrace the beauty of our faith within the bounds of contemporary culture, and to do so in the context of our daily family life. One home at a time, a book like this could perhaps transform society. If nothing else, it can certainly transform your home life.

OratoryConsidering the harried, narcissistic culture in which we live, what a contrast it is to consult this unassuming paperback, and to be filled with a momentary wonder and peace at what our homes could be—if only we could put forth a little effort toward that end! Even just picking up the book for a few minutes, one is struck by its aesthetic qualities. It calls us from the mundane to the holy and the noble. Even before reading it, the illustrations and the cover call us to that which is higher, to transformation.

But how can we be transformed? The Little Oratory highlights three ways we can seek to do that. First, we must be prayer-centered. Second, we must be counter-cultural. And third, we must renounce our pride. In doing so, we may yet see the redemption of our culture.

Making our homes prayer-centered is the answer to the frenzied pace of modern life. In a rushed and harried culture, we must slow down. Sitting to pray as a family, or stopping to do the Liturgy of the Hours might seem extraordinary in our times—or more specifically, in your own home. Yet, while starting the day with social media may be the norm, the daily readings and, perhaps a small to do list, are preferable and life-transforming. The authors include tips for incorporating the Hours when it may seem like “a lot of work.” They write, “if your experience is like ours, your life will gradually start to conform to the pattern of your prayer and you will find it easier to make time.” Lawler and Clayton urge us to simply keep trying until it is a normal part of a busy routine. The illustrations, such as a beautiful mother cradling her child, inspire the reader to do just that.

Second, we must be counter-cultural, rather than obsessed with material things or financial gain. To seek financial security isn’t wrong. In itself, it can contribute to a family’s sense of peace and well-being, one available to few people today. Yet this is what I love about The Little Oratory: its authors seek to redeem possessions rather than renounce them. The beauty of this book is in its little tips for creating prayer altars throughout the home, making it more beautiful, reminding the dwellers of the higher law of peace and love. A simple couple of items—a wreath, a vase of flowers, a bowl of decorated eggs—can turn our thoughts heavenward and assist us in prayer. A rosary of pearls hanging on a hook may well transform a dull corner into an inspiring one. The Kingdom of Heaven is like those pearls, and its entrance turns us from what is dull to what is bright, shining, and alive. And while not quickly won, nor easily found, it is a treasure well worth the cost.

Finally, The Little Oratory challenges us to renounce all pride for love of Jesus and our neighbor. This book taught me that we all have much room to grow. In particular, it reminded me that our strength comes from God alone. A Christian’s steadiness and even confidence in life must ultimately come from the love and peace that come from knowing Christ. One particular instance in which this meets our lives, practically speaking? Lawler and Clayton’s advice about the encouragement of spouses to engage in prayer. One chapter is entitled “Who Prays and Who Leads Prayer in the Little Oratory?” I loved this particular chapter, which considers the roles of various members within the family’s prayer life. In renouncing our own ego and self-absorption even in this area of life, which is so common in this day and age, we may find a momentary respite. We are also to follow our Father’s will and seek to know Jesus better. The Little Oratory offers us the opportunity of making this a common part of our everyday life—renouncing our own will for that of a Higher Law. In doing so, it is a book that just might change your life.

Tacy Williams Beck is a wife and mother to three girls and one boy. She likes to read, bake, sew, and, of course, write. Read more of her articles at Real Housekeeping here and Catholic Mom here. Follow her on Pinterest here.

St Helena and the Triumph of the Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on the day that it is believed that St Helena discovered the remains of Christ’s cross in the Holy Land.

Wrap your head around that for a minute. Today, centuries ago, a woman, who happened to be the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor and who later was declared a saint, actually found the remains of the Cross on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified and died for our sins.

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

Ok, so some people are sure to argue that it mightn’t have been exactly September 14th when she found the cross . . . fine. Shoot. I’m sure some people will argue she didn’t find it at all. Whatever. For the record, I believe that she did find Jesus’ Cross in the ditch where his executioners threw it. I believe that that ditch is today in the chapel that bears her name in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it very well could have been September 14th.

The Chapel of St Helena lies in the bowels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, down a flight of stairs marked by crosses from hundreds of pilgrims over the centuries. In the corner is a small slab of marble, placed over the spot where it is believe St Helena found the Cross.

For a closer look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Chapel of St Helena, and to learn about how she managed to build one church over both the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, check out the final episode of The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, embedded at the end of this post. This beautiful video, produced by the Franciscan Media Center, also shows you the Chapel of St Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and explains how the finding of the Cross is celebrated on May 7th in the Holy Land. This video shows how, on September 14th, the relics of the Cross are shown to the congregation.

Now, let’s talk about how absolutely amazing this whole Feast is, shall we? And how very much we need it today, three days after the 13th anniversary of the horrific events in New York City one bright and sunny morning, and as any number of horrific and soul-sucking events are taking place, many of which are done, falsely of course, in the name of God.

I need to believe in the Triumph of the Cross. I bet my entire life on it. Don’t you?

IMG_0573

I think back to the Holy Land in 2011, when we were filming the Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, and were walking the dark streets of Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross). What do we say at the beginning of every station?

“We adore you, Oh Christ, and we praise you, because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.”

By Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

Fulton Sheen, in his amazing book Life of Christ, writes:

The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last. The scripture describes Him as “the Lamb slain as it were, from the beginning of the world.” He was slain in intention by the first sin and rebellion against God. It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth. His has been the only life in the world that was ever lived backward. As the flower in the crannied wall tells the poet of nature, and as the atom is the miniature of the solar system, so too, His birth tells the mystery of the gibbet. He went from the known to the known, from the reason of His coming manifested by His name “Jesus” or “Savior” to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, His death on the Cross.

A baby with the shadow of the Cross on his forehead. His whole life it was there—His destiny. His purpose. And the means of our redemption.

Heinrich Hoffmann’s haunting image, “Christ in Gethsemane” hangs in my bedroom, and I look at it every morning as I awake and every night before I go to sleep.

Christ in the Garden of GethsemaneHeinrich Hofmann, 1890

Heinrich Hoffmanns “Christ in Gethsemane”, my favorite image of Jesus in the Garden

As a child, the idea that Jesus would have been alone in the Garden, suffering so much that he sweat blood, haunted me. I would often tell God that, if I had been there, I would have stayed awake! Yesiree! Years later, I read that Jesus sweat blood because at that moment, the sins of all of mankind, from Adam until the end of the world were placed before him, so that He might choose to do the thing for which he came and redeem us all, or to give up. I later read somewhere that when He asked His Heavenly Father to take the cup from him, He was thinking about the lukewarm souls—the people who could have cared less about what He was about to suffer for them. But then, when I found out that I could be there with Him in the Garden, and pray for Him and console Him today! Even as I sit in my office looking out of my window! Well, prayer and Holy Hours took on a life for me.

The Triumph of the Cross took place some 2014 years ago, one day on a hill outside of the walls of Jerusalem. And it continues to take place every single moment of every day since. The Cross will always triumph, no matter what goes on around us.

That gives me strength. That gives me hope.

My parish recently replaced an image of Jesus Resurrected with a beautiful statue of Jesus, dead on the Cross. I know that there are some people who think the sight of Jesus dead on the Cross is depressing, and they find the Resurrection so much more hopeful. I’m not one of those people.

StPhilipCrucifix

New crucifix at my parish

I LOVE the Cross.

Why?

Well, for one thing, it’s my future. It’s your future, too. In fact, Jesus very clearly promised it to all of us, if we want to follow Him, that is.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” –Matthew 16:24-25

Sure, the implication is that Resurrection and happiness in Heaven will follow, but first comes the Cross, baby. Better get used to it.

In The Passion of the Christ, one of the thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus yells out to him, “Why do you embrace your cross, you fool?!”

We’re all called to embrace our crosses, whatever they may be. And the awesome thing about it is that the cross is not just a symbol of God’s love for us, but it is an embrace from God to us.

Early Christians would pray,

O cross, you are the glorious sign of our victory. Through your power may we share in the triumph of Christ Jesus.

IMG_3590

Crucifix from the Irish chapel at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

Let us continue those prayers ourselves, today and every day as we struggle through this pilgrimage of life. And when your eyes rest on a crucifix or a cross, remember this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

–John 3:16-17

Diana von Glahn is the co-producer (along with husband, David), writer, editor, and host of The Faithful Traveler, a travel series on EWTN, that explores the art, architecture, history and doctrine behind Catholic churches, shrines and places of pilgrimage throughout the world. She is the author of The Mini Book of Saints. She blogs here twice a month, at SpiritualDirection.com, and on her own website, and can be found on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, and Google+. Her first series, The Faithful Traveler in the US: East Coast Shrines, and her second series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, can both be seen on EWTN (check listings) and on her website, where she also sells DVDs of both programs. She is organizing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April 2014, and will be journeying to Portugal this October to film her new series, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal.

Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, (re)visited.

In my previous post on Christopher Beha, I was excited to hear that he had a new novel out (Arts & Entertainments) but hadn’t yet read it. Having corrected the omission, I can confirm the novel’s affinity with some of Waugh’s earlier work. A Handful of Dust comes particularly to mind, concerned as both novels are with the pressures that tear down a dream of idyllic family happiness, including marital infidelity (though the infidelity in A&E is mainly fictional for the sake of the camera). Neither novel is entirely satire, since as the New York Times reviewer aptly pointed out, it’s all but impossible to satirize a culture that comes so completely pre-self-satirized as either the Bright Young Things or the Real Housewives. For A Handful of Dust, critic Gene Kellogg* suggests the term “apologue” rather than “satire” — in his use of the term, this is a story in which “the emotions aroused in the reader come not from sympathy for the characters but from assent to the statement made by the action.” This seems a fitting description for A&E as well; we’re meant to view its characters with a certain amount of detachment, not so much to feel deeply for their various absurd plights as to reflect on what the bare possibility of such plights means for our society. Yet sympathy for the characters is far from impossible here, either. Both Beha and Waugh succeed in humanizing a subculture that is often viewed as totally frivolous. The novels’ humor balances their darkness, and their awareness of that darkness keeps any frivolity from spiraling out of control.

More can and must be said, but I’ll leave the big themes to the big guns. The Millions review shouldn’t be missed, nor Beha’s own interview about the novel at Harper’s. Do note Beha’s remarks at the end about religion and realism, which resonate with the recent discussion amongst Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia about faith in fiction.

Attentive readers of the novel will also pick up on Beha’s sly, subtle yet thrilling shout-out to J.F. Powers in Moody’s late monologue, as Moody describes his transition from ex-seminarian to reality TV producer. We’ve already visited that “retreat house in Minnesota run by the Order of St. Clement” where Moody discovered his gift for getting people to reveal their inner lives on film. (The Clementines don’t exist; they were created by Powers for his novel Morte D’Urban, which itself wrestles with questions of appearance vs. reality, the ways in which personal integrity is compromised by striving for image, and to what degree the real self can truly survive its constant friction with the masks we present to others. Major, major intertextuality win here.)

 

* in his The Vital Tradition, which looks at the rise of the Catholic novel in France, England, and America over a period of roughly 200 years.

The Return of the Native

Dudleya pulverulenta, "Liveforever"

Dudleya pulverulenta, “Liveforever”

Sticky Monkey Flower, Fairy Lanterns, Chinese Houses. I’ve seen a few of these California wildflowers in the cool green hills above the Steven’s Creek reservoir. But there are other plants once native to San Jose that I haven’t seen yet: Pearly Everlasting, our native strawberry Fragaria californica, or the Liveforever, a ghostly succulent that likes to hang out on cliff faces.

California is green in the winter and gold in the summer. That always felt like the natural rhythm to me, felt like home. But I’ve learned that it’s a recent, drastic change: the hills used to boast living plants year-round. Only when Spanish cattle brought the seeds of European grasses did the bronze oaks acquire their pretty blond backdrop.

Metaphor of Grass in California

by Charles Martin

The seeds of certain grasses that once grew
Over the graves of those who fell at Troy
Were brought to California in the hooves
Of Spanish cattle. Trodden into the soil,

They liked it well enough to germinate,
Awakening into another scene
Of conquest: blade fell upon flashing blade
Until the native grasses fled the field,

And the native flowers bowed to their dominion.
Small clumps of them fought on as they retreated
Toward isolated ledges of serpentine,
Repellent to their conquerors. . . .
In defeat,
They were like men who see their city taken,
And think of grass–how soon it will conceal
All of the scattered bodies of the slain;
As such men fall, these fell, but silently.

The only thing sadder than the defeat of the native grasses is the defeat of the native peoples, which this poem mourns without ever mentioning it directly, as if so much death is unsayable.  I fear that I may be trivializing it by bringing it up in a post that is basically about gardening, but when we garden with native plants, we are attempting to restore something that has been lost.  I can’t go back in time and undo tragedy, but I do have control over the barren backyard of the house I’m renting.  California is kind to foreign species, as long as you can water them–the long-fallow soil of my backyard has sent up geysers of green in the form of basil and tomatoes–but we all know that water here is running short.  Native plants don’t need to be watered in summer because they’ve survived here for ages without it.  In fact, a lot of these plants will die if you fertilize them and overwater them.  They are ascetics who are ruined by luxury.  For me, the lazy gardener, what could be better?

Low-water gardens, or xeriscapes, are becoming more popular now as Californians realize that, while lawns are nice for muggy Virginia or verdant England, we can’t really afford to dump huge amounts of water on a plant we can’t even eat.  That reservoir I mentioned earlier is turning into a mud puddle.  I see a lot of lavender in yards these days, and New Zealand flax and other plants from Mediterranean climates around the world, but not so many Californian species.  Ceanothus, yes, our western answer to lilac, a gamine in faded blue jeans to its perfumed Southern belle.  And manzanita, which forms blunt, dusty hedges down road medians everywhere.  What about pink-flowering currant, though?  Or California fuschia?  So many choices–and yet, a comforting restriction of choice.  I guess my interest in gardening with these plants follows my love of meter and rhyme in poetry: freedom within rules.  I don’t know where to start when faced with every plant in the nursery, or every word in the dictionary.

And yet, I am not a purist.  As much as I wish I could see the wild California of old, I am also nostalgic for Silicon Valley’s orchard days.  Neat, cultivated rows of apricot and plum and almond, blossoming from hill to hill–a man-made landscape, no question.  And how could I wish our famous vineyards out of existence?

So I’ve planted a Meyer lemon and an apricot in my sunny front yard, and I am scheming to make the backyard a colorful oasis of native plants..  An Island Tree Mallow is already multiplying its fuzzy leaves, and hopefully it will grow as high as the fence.  Island Mountain Mahogany and native currants will fill in the rest of the fence, and the shade of our one large tree will become mysterious with California bush anemone, ferns, and coral bells.  I want the ink-blue flowers and bracing scent of Cleveland sage, the “wiry heathpacks” of California buckwheat, and the rusty, desert sunset pink of yarrow.  I want to see bugs, birds and butterflies feasting on berries and nectar.  I want a garden that couldn’t grow anywhere else. dudleya_beargrass

If Christians Were Like Edwin Edwards

EdwinEdwardsI’ve been driving around town seeing signs that say “Edwards – Congress” and smiling. In spite of myself, I cannot help admiring Edwin Edwards. Not morally or ethically, mind you. The former four-term governor of Louisiana was released from federal prison in 2011 after serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion. (What else did we expect from a man who once ran on the slogan, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important”?) He was eighty-three when he got out, and any sane person would have retired on his more-than-modest means to live out his days in peace, but no. Instead, Fast Eddie immediately married a thirty-two year old, fathered a child, and got his own reality TV show. Now he’s running for congress in my district.

I find myself wondering what the world might be like if we Christians lived the Gospel with the same kind of tireless, unapologetic gumption.

Humans of Tanglewood

We have come here to hear Beethoven. Listening to music has become a private affair in recent years, but there is little that is private here. Blankets and lawn chairs crowd the space beneath the trees, and toddlers run freely through the grass. Teenagers trip awkwardly over reclining older couples, and their embarrassed parents abruptly fold up their seats and disappear. Grandfathers dance slowly and mysteriously across the lawn and settle quietly next to their children’s children, still moving in time with the music. Picnic lunches are in progress. The Ninth Symphony calls us all to universal brotherhood.

Beethoven can make you feel that you’re outside no matter where you are, or make you want to be. It’s not really nature that he’s thinking of, perhaps; it’s some kind of ideal, but then so is this particular corner of the Berkshires. We’re all looking for Elysium, some kind of rose-strewn landscape with a canopy of stars, capitalizing our nouns and wondering if this is what it feels like to be drunk with fire.

It’s Not Medieval

What happened this summer?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past couple of months as crisis after crisis has broken out around the world, so many coming and in such quick succession that it’s almost impossible to remember everything one is supposed to be keeping up with. We’ve seen the continued atrocities of the Assad regime. The annexation of Crimea. The expansion of ISIS from Syria into Iraq. The Ebola crisis. Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The persecuted Christians in Mosul. The Yazidis.  Famine and war in South Sudan. Miriam Ibrahim. Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric. Venezuela’s downward spiral. James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Libya. Egypt. The Gaza strip.

All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan.

boromir

Through it all, I’ve noticed that the word “medieval” keeps coming up time and again when journalists report on these atrocities. Most often the word is used to describe ISIS, but not exclusively. “Medieval Cruelty in Modern Times” reads a popular article at The Daily Beast. “Liberal interventionists silent on ISIS’s medieval brutality,” reports Hot Air. “Ukraine unrest: No end in sight to ‘medieval’ protests,” says the BBC (this in reference to the protesters’ use of makeshift shields and catapults). Whatever the context, it’s always pretty clear what the word means: brutal, backward, cruel.

This isn’t the place to jump into a history lesson, so I’ll merely point out that catapults date back to at least a thousand years before the Medieval period. Also, as any medievalist will tell you, the terms Dark Age and Medieval period are not synonymous with each other. When we refer to something as “medieval,” we are rarely referring to the real Middle Ages, but rather to a vague popular sense of what we regard as the opposite of modern, slick, and enlightened.

“Medieval” is a very convenient term. What it really means is not us. This little word allows us to explain away the horrors modern man sees when he looks in the mirror. Beheadings, torture, murder, the deliberate targeting of innocents—in the popular imagination, these things are medieval, not modern.

What a perfect encapsulation of modern arrogance. What will it take for us to realize that this is our world? That the hooded thugs that murdered Foley and Sotloff speak with a modern British accent? That Putin’s empire-building is supported by the modern oil trade and funded largely by contemporary Europe? Let’s not blame the medievals for what we’re seeing in the news. These atrocities are the kind of thing we do. It’s not by chance you’re watching them on YouTube.

You’d have thought the 20th century would have been enough for us to know better.

What was the Holocaust and its industrial model of extermination? Modern.

The Gulag and Stalin’s purges? Modern.

Mao and the millions of deaths caused by his “Great Leap Forward”? Even the name sounds modern.

Or how about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their extermination of around 20% of the Cambodian population? Modern modern modern.

But, of course, those are the bad guys. And they have foreign names. And they’re nazis or commies or something. And that’s not what modern means! Modern means freedom, damn it! And democracy. And the pursuit of happiness.

Better then to forget that we, the good guys, have been the only ones in history who have used atomic weapons—twice. Say what you want about the necessity of deliberately targeting a civilian population in order to avoid the hypothetically larger casualties of a prolonged war. Personally, I find that reasoning disturbingly utilitarian, but I can see its appeal. That makes no difference here. Even if it acquits Truman and America, it is all the more damning to the modern world—it makes modernity the kind of world where the good guys find it necessary to turn civilian populations into radioactive ash.

Sure, Medieval civilization was very far from perfect. But given our own baggage, do we really want to go there? Instead, next time you hear the word “medieval,” I challenge you to think of universities, toll roads, clocks, punctuation (that’s right!), or the printing press—all Medieval inventions. When you visit Europe and are dazzled by the beauty of so many of its cities, think “medieval,” for even when the buildings you are looking at may not have been built in that time (though then again, they may have), it was the medieval period that formed Europe as such. Or how about this: next time you ponder the benefits of democracy, think medieval. Influenced by the Enlightenment writers’ narrative of history, our minds immediately jump back to Athens or republican Rome, but the truth is that we have no historical connection to those systems. Present-day democracies arose out of the Middle Ages, as burghers began gaining the right to autonomous administration from feudal lords who wanted to profit from the tax revenue the trade of such towns could provide. To a significant extent, we have those horrible, backward medievals to thank for the right to vote.

And maybe next time news of an atrocity flashes across your screen—as no doubt sadly it will—we may just consider describing it as modern.