The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920’s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

The Parenting Drug

drugsI went to see my dental hygienist the other day.  During the moments when her fingers were not in my mouth, she and I chatted (like we do every six months) about parenting.  My boys are three and five, her daughter is two.  There is always something to chew on about preschools, naptime rituals, kids who won’t eat vegetables–the usual.  This time, we talked about coping with the stress of parenting.  She told me that a few days before, she had been talking about the same thing with other working moms who looked at her and said, “Aren’t you on Zoloft?  Or Paxil?” with an air that clearly implied, “Because everybody else is.”

I did some reading, and it turns out, my hygienist and I have been living in a bubble.  Those other moms are right.  It’s not quite “everybody,” but prescribing antidepressants to frazzled moms is becoming increasingly common.  I, an incessantly frazzled mom, can absolutely understand why it would help.  My rose-colored parenting glasses came off when my oldest son was diagnosed with a developmental disorder affecting his language and motor skills just after he turned two.  I was three months pregnant with my youngest at the time.  My life ever since has been an unending whirlwind of choosing therapies, investigating schools, learning how to continue therapy at home, plus all the normal headaches that come from raising two boys.  While writing this paragraph, I have been interrupted to fish a naked toddler out of the bathtub and to engineer a way to keep him from scaling the built-in desk in the hall.  I also work full time.  Not a day goes by when I couldn’t use a good chill pill.  But, in the midst of all the chaos, it is easy to forget that our frazzled hearts will always be restless until they rest in God.

Let me be clear.  Depression is very real and very dangerous, and it can definitely affect mothers.  Some of the dearest people in my life require psychiatric medications, and I am truly grateful that science has developed ways to help them.  Anyone–man or woman, parent or not–who believes he or she may be suffering from a mental illness should seek the help of a psychiatrist.  If you need medication, please take it.  I am only here to say, there is something else you need, and it is more powerful than any drug.

It’s called prayer.

Mothers do not always neglect prayer because we lack faith.  We neglect it for the same reason I haven’t had a haircut in six months; there is no time.  For most of us, the only way we have been taught to pray is to carve out a few minutes of silence, which is a very good way.  For me personally, however, “finding time” proved to be impossible.  Prayer became just one more thing to add to the agenda, another gratuitous source of stress.  I had to give up the idea of finding time and learn how to find opportunity instead.

God does not exist somewhere outside our busy lives, like a kind old uncle we need to visit now and then.  He is there in the very midst of headache, heartache, and frustration.  He is there every time your child cries, and every time he smiles.  Every hug is an opportunity to thank God for the gift of that beautiful little person in your arms.  Every sleepless night is an opportunity to throw yourself upon His mercy and experience His grace.  I cannot tell you how many times my prayer has been as simple as, “Holy Spirit, I can’t do this.  You’re going to have to take over.”  If and when I get to heaven, I’m going to throw a barbecue for my family’s guardian angels.  They do a marvelous job of catching us in the moments when I fail–and those failures are another opportunity to praise God because He has not left us orphans.  We are right when we say, one person cannot do this job on her own.  One person does not have to.  We have whole legions, both in heaven and on earth, ready to answer our call.

This is what prayer can do:

In the three and a half years since my son’s diagnosis, he has gone from being completely unable to communicate to being at or above normal in every linguistic category except social skills.  The advances in his motor skills are more difficult to describe–he still looks awkward when he tries to gesture–but he tries.  We expect him to overcome the need for therapy in another two to three years.  For all of this, his magnificent team of therapists deserves a big round of applause.  My son deserves a standing ovation; he is the one doing the work.  My husband and I will accept a pat on the back, because we have hardly been idle bystanders.  But behind it all there has been a small army of people praying.  Every night, God has gone to bed with countless of those persistent, hungry friends from the parable (Luke 11:5-8) knocking at His door.  Just as He promised, He got up and answered.

My radical solution to the problem of motherhood stress is this: pray, but don’t just pray.  Ask others to pray for you, too.  Then, instead of restlessness, weight gain, and anxiety–the side effects of antidepressants–we might find that motherhood brings love, joy, and peace–the side effects of prayer.

Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Singing Our Contrition:


congregation-singingPenitence is a quiet thing.  Certainly, one who has found freedom and redemption wants to shout it from the rooftops, but that comes later.  The first movement toward acknowledging our failings turns us inward, to contemplation and remorse.  Who dances into the confessional?  We rejoice in forgiveness, but who feels joyful when he cries out, “Forgive me”?  I have never known anyone who wanted to sing about his sins.

I was surprised, then, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the 2008 document Sing to the Lord, and I read this statement: “In Lent, instruments should be used only to support the singing of the gathered assembly” (#114.)  I was not the only music director who thought this strange.  What better season is there for a contemplative piano solo, maybe a flute or a violin, to gently coax our souls along their penitential path?  Movies have conditioned us to feel the way the instrumental music sounds.  When the orchestra is soft and prayerful, we automatically follow suit.  Yet here the bishops were hamstringing directors, requiring in the very same paragraph that Lenten music exercise “restraint,” while ripping from our arsenal restraint’s most obvious friend: the instruments.  Why not dial back all that awkward minor-mode singing and just let the music flow?

I did not understand the bishops’ orders, but, like a good little Roman soldier, I marched.  Gone were the soft organ preludes before Mass, the subtle “doodling” underneath the spoken prayers.  In came more sung hymns to add to our sung “Kyrie” and sung “Lord, hear our prayer,” which were already Lenten traditions in our parish.  We created a relentless, unbroken strain of congregational songs supported by piano and organ.  The entire mood felt forced.  For several years, our hamstrung Lenten music dragged itself impatiently toward Easter.  So, last year I finally said, “Fine, bishops.  You don’t want instruments in Lent?  They’re gone.”  For every Lenten Mass, I programmed two pieces (one was the same every week) to be sung completely a cappella.

The pastor nodded reluctant approval.  The organist declared me to be completely off my rocker.  The other cantors all said, “Great, but you’re going to lead it.  We’re out.”  The choir was skeptical, but they have followed me on wilder liturgical adventures and lightning has yet to strike us, so they warily came along for the ride.  Our congregation is a singing one, relative to some, but no one thought it possible for them to sustain a cappella verse for more than the length of “Thanks be to God.”  Nevertheless, we armed ourselves with hymnals, screwed our courage to the sticking place, and set out to restrain Lent.

That’s when God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to give me tonsillitis.  Thus did I discover how truly penitential singing can be.

Fortunately, the congregation never noticed the agony their cantor was enduring as I led them into these uncharted waters of pure unison song–uncharted, except that the Church has been navigating them for its entire history.  It’s the pipe organ, the piano, the guitar that are new-fangled; the human voice had been praising God for millennia before such contraptions came along.  My parish threw down its mechanical crutches, and an amazing thing happened: God said, “Get up and walk.”  Our twenty-story ceiling echoed with the plaint that had always been singing in our hearts, the melody of contrition.  We did not end up hopelessly flat; our tempos did not drag down into breathless dirges.  Instead, something simple, new, and beautiful was born.  It was true Lent.

Not surprisingly, it turns out the bishops know good liturgy better than I do.  They know that “engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ” (#113) also means engaging human voices.  They know that the healing presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ is made manifest in the communion of the assembly much more readily than in a movie-style soundtrack to the Mass.  In Sing to the Lord, the bishops affirm the power of instrumental music to glorify God in the Mass, and so do I.  But the quiet, inward turning of repentance should lead us toward the place where “God dwells within each human person, in the place where music takes its source” (#1.)  The source of all music is the instrument God Himself fashioned: your voice.  Sinfulness may not make us feel much like singing, but song is the way God leads us “to the realm of higher things,” (#2) to mercy, grace, and salvation.

You who are reading this may or may not have any say-so about how liturgy happens in your parish.  Even if you do, my little experiment might serve no purpose in the context of your parish life.  But, no matter what your liturgies sound like, during this Lenten season, I challenge all of you to sing.  “Music is… a sign of God’s love for us and our love for him….  Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (#1.)  If it is truly God’s presence you seek to know in your Lenten journey, then forget about giving up cake and give up your self-conscious silence instead.  Kick your ego to the curb, ignore your neighbor’s dirty glares, and proclaim your sorrow, your sinfulness, and your hope of salvation to the One who will always listen.  Let the song of the Church at prayer guide your heart through desert dryness into the oasis of Easter.  Then, when we have found true union with the Body of Christ in our assemblies, we can let the trumpets, lyres, and the rest join in to proclaim our joy.

On Art and Necessity

I once asked my old art professor why she was a painter. After stumbling around for a while, she said something like, “the process of painting teaches you how to live.”

I’ve been thinking about this response for a few years now. It’s a statement I believe in wholeheartedly, but I also stumble around before ever repeating it. In the studio, I often feel like I’m reaching in the dark, but I rarely feel like I am being taught.

Five weeks ago my wife and I had our first daughter. She came five weeks early. Twelve days in the NICU completely reoriented my priorities. The second Augusta was sent down the hall for breathing issues, my wife and I clicked into survival mode. Nothing else mattered besides caring and advocating for our daughter in the NICU. Now that we’re back home, I’ve haven’t clicked out of that mode. The impulse to create, replaced by the impulse to survive, now seems ridiculous. How could anything be less urgent than smudging oil and pigment around on a flat surface?

Obama shared my sentiments lately. A few weeks ago he was criticized for his thoughts on the art history degree:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” [sic][laughter]

This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Skilled manufacturing is so much more urgent, so much more relevant than discussing the well-smeared paste of artists long past. Who has time for that? I’d rather feed my family, or fix the problem in Syria.

The College Art Association responded to Obama’s remarks. If we do away with such degrees, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”

But art making never seems so urgent as saving future generations. When so much of what we encounter on a daily basis offers an escape from reality, isn’t art just another way out? So many paintings offer pastoral windows into other worlds. These pleasant getaways rarely challenge our beliefs or craft our values.

Of course such paintings have their place, but I really believe that art was born out of a much more urgent necessity. The Chauvet Cave drawings, some of the earliest known, are anything but decorative. Painted in the far recesses of a cave, most of the drawings feature predatory animals or buffalos or horses in states of movement. There is a palpable searching in these drawings, an urgency, a need to really figure something out. One drawing features a combined female and bison figure. Here two fabrics of life are awkwardly knit together in charcoal. Sustenance and generation, death and life so intertwined, it only makes sense to draw them as one.

The Chauvet Cave Drawings, photo from the Bradshaw Foundation

Such images often express what words cannot. More recently, drawings have been used in refugee camps as a successful way for children to express their thoughts and feelings. With a simple drawing, they can express what they could not put into words. The process of drawing accesses a different part of the psyche. It is a process of seeking, digging, carving until you get somewhere. You only need to keep your hand moving. Art does not offer a way out, it offers a way in. Born out of necessity, art making unfolds new topographies, new ways of charting. A drawing or painting becomes an extension of seeing, and even when it’s not necessary, we still turn to these mediums to know deeper.

Even still, art seems like an extra-thing, a we-could-get-by-without-it thing. But I think we can say its superfluousness is only matched by its necessity.

The Millennial Little Women

I watched Little Women with one of my roommates last night. Both of us are at the point where we’ve seen it so many times that it’s difficult not to recite it as we watch it, and bits and pieces of the script come up in every day conversation on an alarmingly regular basis. This is the roommate with whom, in college, I watched this whole movie in ten minute segments on YouTube on her phone. I’ve been told this means we’re addicts; I prefer to think of us as budget-restricted devotees.

It had been a while, though, since the last time I saw it, so of course lines that I thought I knew suddenly made new sense; I heard different things than I’ve heard before. One of the parts that struck me is when she’s talking with her mother after telling her dearest friend that no, she doesn’t want to marry him. She’s fretful and unhappy and feeling lost and confused, and it doesn’t help matters that her aunt has taken her little sister to Europe instead of taking her:

“Of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me. Why shouldn’t she? I’m ugly and awkward, and I always say the wrong thing. I fly around, throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals! I love our home, but I’m just so fitful that I can’t stand being here! I’m sorry—I’m sorry, Marmee—there’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t . . . and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.”

“Jo. You have so many extraordinary gifts! How can you expect to lead an ordinary life? You’re ready to go out and find a good use for your talent. Although, I don’t know what I shall do without my Jo. Go, and embrace your liberty, and see what wonderful things come of it.”

Okay, I know this is a sentimental movie. But is it just me, or is this the eternal story of that flustered 20-something? It’s not news that every generation has their own challenges, and that they think that their set of challenges is bigger and more monumental than the challenges any other generation has faced before. Ever. And this is what I keep hearing about my own generation, those of us who have been dubbed, “The Millennials.” We’re hopelessly floundering around our 20’s, with little direction, mediocre accomplishments and nothing to be proud of or to hold on to. And no one has ever been so lost as we are now, right?

Well, not exactly.

If I had twelve sons, I might name every one of them Augustine. (Kidding. Maybe.) Born in 354, he didn’t figure out his life till he was 32. In his own words, with my emphasis added,

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. . . . source

Fast forward almost 900 years. In 1181, a cloth merchant’s wife gives birth to a boy whom he names Francesco. He’s fairly well spoiled, likes throwing crazy parties as much as Augustine did, and wants adventure in the great world. His big turn around happened gradually during his mid-twenties, and what a turn around it was. Luckily for Francis of Assisi, he didn’t end up living too long; he did a good job of making an ascetically penitential life for himself, and earned, as far as I can tell, an early retirement.

Go another 500 years. A wild Spanish knight named Ignatius is wounded in battle, and has to lie in bed for months waiting for his leg to heal up. Bored out of his mind, the 31 year old picks up the book someone left on his nightstand. Thus, in 1521, were the Jesuits born, totally kick-ass missionaries of Christ imbued with a soldier’s love of discipline and order. Have you seen The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons? Go watch it, and thank Ignatius of Loyola for what he started. (And maybe ask him to help get the Jesuits back to their former glory; they’ve hit a bit of a rough patch.)

So, I have two things to say to you, my fellow millennials.

First, get over yourself. Your challenges are really nothing special in terms of the scope of the universe and all the people who have lived here and what they’ve had to deal with and figure out. Everybody has to fight against something to know his own place. If we didn’t, why then how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable would seem to us all the uses of this world (name that play!). Warning: sometimes they (those uses) will seem that way anyway. For example, bear in mind that figuring it out might take being imprisoned (St. Francis) or getting your leg mauled and lying on your back for a year (St. Ignatius). Get used to the idea, and buck up.

Second, you yourself are actually something pretty special. God never made anybody with the thought, “Now I will create a thoroughly mediocre individual whose highest possible level of accomplishment is unenthralled complacency.” If you are anything like the rest of us, which you are, you’ll hit that moment of crisis comparable to Jo’s. A good life was offered to her, but she knew it wasn’t right, somehow. She didn’t know what was; all she knew was that she was fitful and felt awkward and ugly and out of place and had to do something not that. Luckily for Jo, she had a wonderful mother who told her the right thing. She was meant for extraordinary things. She had talent, she had desire, she had passion, and she had an intellect. She didn’t take the first thing that was offered simply because it was offered and seemed like a “good enough” idea. She went out to test herself and to make her fortune in the world—and that is a story as old and lasting as the hills.

Millennials, your existential crises are nothing more or less than the eternal plight of the human condition. You have a multitude of comrades in the battle. Rise to meet it, revel in it, and be something extraordinary.

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.

A Waste of Shame

What are the thoughts that run through our heads when we eat at a small-town restaurant? Do we look past the crappy bowl of soup in front of us to the hobbled steps that brought it to our table? What is our honest opinion of the kitchen staff we may catch a glimpse of? Are they too lazy to go out and get real jobs, or might there be more complicated factors at work?

A Waste of ShameLife is hard, period, but it is especially difficult in the poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In Geoffrey Smagacz’s, A Waste of Shame (from the forthcoming, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills [Wiseblood Books]), we follow a small group of young adults as they sometimes confront, but more often than not attempt to avoid, the facts of life and the repercussions of their choices. As we watch this new generation make decisions that lock themselves and those around them into the cycle of poverty and pain, we may be left wondering if it is even possible for these young people to break out of it at all. Woven into this fabric we find an excellent study of character, and a writer’s engagement with the contemporary milieu in which he writes.

A Waste of Shame, gives us a wonderful illustration of just how powerful Minimalism can be when invoking character, especially in its volcanic first chapter. By chapter’s end, we have been presented with very few concrete details about our protagonist, Kevin, but we feel pretty confident that we know who he is and what his relationships are with the people around him. It is a wonderful evocation of the timeless nature of frustrated, unbridled youth, and it is immediately apparent why this chapter has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The placement of the entirety of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 129, in the prologue is a curious move, one which begs our careful consideration. Sonnet 129, is basically an extended rant on the dangers of unbridled lust, and our early inclination may be to assume that it points towards interpreting this story as a condemnation of the young men who abandon their wives and children for the pursuit of base pleasures. This interpretation ties in nicely with the way that Kevin is shocked to learn that Jim is cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, and how he is outraged when he learns that Jim has continued the affair after his marriage, but at times Kevin also seems to be complicit, almost jealous of Jim’s affair. The more we learn about Kevin, the more we wonder if he isn’t just angry that he’s not the one getting laid.

As our understanding of Kevin continues to expand, we begin to suspect that maybe he’s a better explanation for the presence of the sonnet (this is a brilliant character study, after all). Once again, we find this cannot be a simple application of condemnation. Not only is there an anger and frustration to Kevin, but there’s also the effects of a crippling bout of depression; a fact that he can’t see and, given the first-person narration, it takes us a bit longer to realize is there.

So what are we to make of the sonnet in the prologue? Can we find a better fit for it?  While it may contain a good deal of insight into human nature, you might start to wonder how much attention the average contemporary reader will be willing to give it. Many readers may just skip over it.  It sounds too harsh to our contemporary ears: too Elizabethan, too poetic, too moralizing. Don’t we prefer our characters more like Kevin?

The answer lies in the brilliance of this book; what it has to add to the conversation. We begin by acknowledging the fact that the old rules regarding character have changed. There was a time, not long ago, when writers simply needed to leave the stagnant harbors of the bourgeois and nobility for the safer shores of the peasantry and other fringe groups of society; but, this is the age of soap operas and syndicated tabloid talk shows. Consider for a moment how readers might react to characters such as those we find in, A Waste of Shame, after they’ve had such a prodigious helping of Jerry Springer. Will readers still be able to find in these characters the epitome of the human condition, or will they just see a bunch of hillbillies who need to stop drinking, smoking, and cheating on their wives? Will they still sympathize with our narrator, Kevin, or will they just want him to get off his ass and go back to college and get a real job?

These are questions that Smagacz openly wrestles with, and there are moments where the thoughts of Kevin seem to be overtaken by those of the author: “I must have heaved several sighs, but who could hear over mom’s soap opera? Sappy strings tried to direct her to feel trepidation over some immanent doom.” Later at a party, we find that, “the song Don played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a tune with a sappy story. “ Upon hearing this song, one listener seems to voice the consensus of those around him (and potentially us) when he asks, “What is this shit?”

There is more to this than just the standard, post-modern questioning of plot. This goes much deeper, to the many debates recently regarding the authenticity of character in fiction; of what exactly is believable and what is worthy of our sympathy. Here is a well written text that is both believable and full of characters that more than deserve our sympathy, and it dares to ask us what we make of it. Do we really know ourselves well enough to answer, and are we honest enough to admit our judgment? Perhaps the crisis is not in literature, it is in us.

There is much more to be found in this and the other short stories that are included in this volume. Don’t let the cover fool you; “literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary,” does not mean that it is short on themes, conflicts, and many of the other literary elements that make fiction worth reading. There is plenty here to satisfy readers with both contemporary and more traditional literary interpretations (know of any other young men in Shakespeare who were unable to summon themselves to action?).

The late James Laughlin’s publishing house, New Directions, is the standard at the moment for contemporary fiction. When you see ND on the spine, you know that you’re getting a solid work that is actively engaged with contemporary literary concerns. It is still too early to tell what will become of the upstart Wiseblood Books, but such a strong entry as this early on is a sign that it is heading in the right direction.

Making a Date With Beauty

“We have art in order not to die from the truth.” — Nietzsche

Afternoon Dreaming, Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

Afternoon Dreaming, Hugues Merle (1823-1881)

One of the things I love most about home schooling is that we have the flexibility to make art a priority. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as it should. The sad truth is that the day-to-day of life often gets in the way, leaving art and creativity to fall by the wayside. This isn’t to say that there are no moments of beauty in the minutiae of our days — there are many, not the least of which is being able to attend daily Mass. But more days than not pass with work and errands and housecleaning and core subjects and appointments and everything else which occupies the day of a busy family taking up time and crowding out space that might be spent drawing, building, making and listening to music, walking in the park, strolling through a museum, or taking in a dramatic performance at a local theater. Too long without a beauty break, leaves us feeling bereft, weighted, hungry for something simple and pure and a space to breathe it all in.

When I lived in San Francisco and was trying my best to practice living a literary life, I worked my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. While I’ve long since abandoned the practices she advocated, one I’ve never forgotten and have tried with middling success to continue is the “artist’s date”. Essentially, the artist’s date is a special time you set aside (Cameron says it should be weekly) that you actually put on your calendar and plan for, to do something that feeds your creative self and puts you in touch with art and beauty. It can be something as simple as browsing a book shop – no, browsing on Amazon does NOT count – or visiting a craft store to select new yarn for your knitting. It can be as solitary as taking in that foreign or independent film you’re intrigued by or attending a screening of the opera or a live theater performance or a concert. It can be a visit to a local museum, wandering the galleries and feasting your eyes on pictures that spark your imagination and contemplating harmonious lines that bring peace to your soul. It can be a walk through an arboretum or a public garden or other natural space. The artist’s date is a date you keep with yourself, ideally by yourself, to allow your mind, heart, soul to be transfixed, absorbed, and replenished by beauty. In much the way food supplies your body with energy and nutrients, placing yourself in regular proximity to real, beautiful art in any medium is food for your imagination and your soul. Just as a healthy life depends on exercise and nutritious food choices, if you truly want to live a creative life, making room for art and beauty in your life needs to be a priority.

Even though I know this, still I find it difficult to “take time” out of our busy schedule to go for a walk at the Nature Center or stroll the galleries at one of the nearby museums. While there are plenty of parents who take every opportunity to expose their kids to fine art in its various forms, I know there are others like me who feel so pressured by the “have-to’s” of life that we neglect this essential element of connecting with what it means to be human. But I neglect this to my peril, and to the peril of my son, as well. For if I tend to every other need in order to raise him to be healthy in spirit, mind and body, then how can I in good conscience neglect this essential element in his upbringing? How else will he learn the importance of cultivating beauty in the world and of being a faithful steward of it if I do not make time for and model these very things in my own life? If I do not make time to expose him to the very things he needs to be aware of for that call to stewardship to flourish in him?

'La Tricoteuse' (The Little Knitter), by William Adolphe  Bouguereau, 1882.

‘La Tricoteuse’ (The Little Knitter), by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1882.

As Catholics, we are called not only to be custodians of beauty in the world, but to make our lives a work of art and to leave a legacy of wonder behind. Both Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI exhorted all Catholics and Catholic artists to take beauty seriously, to embrace their unique role as stewards of beauty and to recognize God’s presence not only in the gifts of inspiration and talent that lead to great works of art, but also in the everyday ordinary events of our lives. Both holy fathers remind us of the source of all true Beauty and point us towards living an authentically holy life that is also authentically creative and fruitful. A mother, a teacher, a nurse is called to contribute to and bring beauty in the world, to create their lives as works of art in a similar way to the artist, whether poet, painter, or composer. We have art, as Nietzsche says, in order to not die from the truth of what life would be like without the source of all Beauty and Truth, and to help make our life in this exile more bearable by pointing us towards real Beauty, which is God.

 A life starved of art is half a life. I am recommitting to making a greater effort to schedule and keep regular artist’s dates, both on my own and with my family, if not every week, at least once or twice a month. It’s a step in the right direction towards the path to helping each one of us become stewards of beauty in the world and discerning how to live artful, faith- filled lives that will leave a legacy of wonder behind.

The pictures included in this post were taken by my son and I on our recent artist’s date to the Bowers Museum. Enjoy, and be inspired!

Napoleon Returns to Visit the Wounded, by Paul Emile Boutigny, c. 1890

Napoleon Returns to Visit the Wounded, by Paul Emile Boutigny, c. 1890

Icon of St. Luke. Vatican Ethnographic Exhibit.

Icon of St. Luke. Vatican Ethnographic Exhibit.

Pharaoh's Daughter, by Reginald Arthur, 1896.

Pharaoh’s Daughter, by Reginald Arthur, 1896.


Pandora, by Thomas Kennington, 1908.

Pandora, by Thomas Kennington, 1908.

Artifact from the Vatican Ethnographic Exhibition at the Bowers Museum.

Artifact from the Vatican Ethnographic Exhibition at the Bowers Museum.

Contemplation, by Herbert James Draper, c. 1900

Contemplation, by Herbert James Draper, c. 1900

Crocodile from Papua New Guinea. Vatican Ethnographic Exhibit, Bowers Museum

Crocodile from Papua New Guinea. Vatican Ethnographic Exhibit, Bowers Museum


Why Should You Write?

This is a question that plagues me. I like to know why I do the things that I do. But when I walk into a bookstore or a library, or browse new suggestions on Amazon, or look at my shelf that has all of the “waiting-to-be-read” books on it, I start to feel a little panicky for two reasons. First, how on earth will I ever read all the things in the world? Obviously, I won’t, but still, there’s a vague sense of guilt that rises to the surface every time I think about it. Second, and more pertinent to our discussion here, what do I have to write, what could I possibly add to the vast array of books and stories and poems and blog posts and letters, that could be worth anything more than everything that has already been done?


As is often the case when I think about such things, I find that I’m not the first person to have wondered. (Blast! See? Everything has already been done!) One of my roommates, reading O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, shared a passage with me on Sunday. Miss Flannery is giving advice to a friend on accepting criticism and using her skills as a writer for the right purpose, that is, because she’s been given them. If God gives you talents, use them. Develop them. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what the dickens it’s all about; it’s your responsibility to use what you’ve been given, even if you never see the result of it. And, of course, in reading O’Connor’s advice, I was reminded of similar advice I had also been given by one of my writer friends when I put the question to him. If you’re in a rush, I’ve already summed up what both letters are about (chin up and get to it). But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, and you’re one of the thousand and one unoriginal souls who have pondered the same question with varying levels of frustration, they’re a comforting read-through. So, be comforted!

First, my query:

As far as my writing bringing solace to your mind and heart, and perhaps to others’ as well, I am so glad it does, and honored as well. Maybe that sounds formal or stuffy or something, but I really do mean it.  Sometimes I feel petty and childish (not childlike) because I wish that more people would read it or say something about it. I guess I just want attention; not a very original or singular desire by any means. But then, on what I like to think is a more noble plane, when I see something beautiful, it calls out to be shared. I want to share. I want people to be excited by the things that excite me. And if I have something that seems worth saying, I want to say it to as many people as possible. I want, I want, I want. Yes, well, maybe the fact that in this regard I want many good things along with the selfish things mitigates the wantingness of it all. At any rate, I am glad to know that I can occasionally give you something in which you find yourself delighted and more at peace, even if only temporarily so.

The response from J.B. Toner (Who, by the way, has had a number of things published in our magazine; he’s a good writer! Look him up.):

Regarding the yearning to have one’s words heard: holy Lord in Heaven above, do I get that. I used to go on rampages through my old apartment after I finished writing a chapter because it would be SO GOOD (everything seems brilliant immediately after you finish writing it, doesn’t it?) and I knew no one would ever publish it, no one would ever see it except a few of my friends that I pestered into reading it. I guess there’s an Old English saying that Tolkien used to quote:  Ciggendra gehwelc wile þœt hine man gehere, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard.” What I keep trying to remind myself is that on the one hand, the temporal hand, every author ends in oblivion—even Homer will be lost when the sun burns out—and on the other hand, all is known to God and the best of what we create will be shared with everyone in the world to come.  So I shouldn’t be getting worked up over whether ten people or a million people read my stuff here on earth. Right? Sure . . . . But like Joey says, the great truths are usually not very comforting. Or at least, not right now. Just keep at it. Keep getting better, and trust your time will come. That’s what we do.

I think the closest thing I have to advice is the thing I’ve been trying for years to accept, with limited success: we have to write what’s in us, and just trust that He’ll use it somehow—that one way or another, it’ll find its way to where it’ll do good, and we will very, very likely never know about it. In this world, I mean. Someone, I forget who—St. T of Avila, maybe?—talks about all the people who will come running up to you in Heaven to thank you for all the things you barely remember, that you never dreamed would actually bear any fruit anywhere, but that somehow made a difference to people you never even knew on earth at all. Occasionally, that comforts me. Other times it just makes me go, “Yeah, yeah, great,” and be bitter because I’m writing all this stuff and nobody’s seeing it. So, believe me, I understand. Anyway, in short, I think we just have to offer it up and keep schlepping our tired asses forward down the path. I’m not exactly sure it gets easier, but it does get different—the angst sort of ferments with time into new and interesting transmogrifications—so, at least, there’s that!

I’ll tell you what I keep telling myself when I have fears that I will cease to be, and/or when I consider how my light is spent. When the unknown author wrote Beowulf, it was lost for centuries, copied down in a single manuscript that survived unnoticed in trunks and farmhouses for half a millennium, almost burned up in a fire, and was finally dusted off by scholars and remembered chiefly as a source of information on archaic heraldry and pseudo-history for many decades more. It wasn’t till Tolkien came along and wrote his seminal study of the work that it began to be valued as epic poetry rivaling Homer, Dante, and Milton in its own right. But in the meantime it inspired Tolkien himself so greatly that it became the chief wellspring of his own great works, and those works have become to millions of people (including the hell out of myself) just such an inspiration as Beowulf itself was to him. So, in short—we don’t know where our words will end up, or what use God will make of them on earth. Mostly we just have to trust Him. And it’s really, really hard. But, that’s who we are, and it’s absolutely worth it. So, you know—keep writing. Hard is good.

And from the Lady Flannery (I don’t know who B. is, I’m afraid. Do any of you?):

young flannery I asked B. what he thought might be the matter and he said he thought you might be depressed because you had shown something you had written to some young man who made a lot of criticisms of it that you thought were just. . . . Of course B. may be wrong and I hope he was but assuming for the moment he wasn’t, I have this to say. No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel. I feel that you are distracted, particularly when you say, for instance, that it is B.’s writing that interests you considerably more than he does. This is certainly not so, no matter how good a writer he gets to be, or how silly he gets to be himself. The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern. This sermon is now ended. (The Habit of Being, p. 419.)

So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.

In Which Hollywood Finds an Unlikely Champion

In the wake of Angela Cybulski’s post “Why Saving Mr. Banks is Worth Seeing” and the guest post from Kathryn from Through a Glass Brightly about “Poor A.A. Milne,” film adaptations of literary works are getting something of a bad rap here on the Dappled Things blog.  I find myself smiling more than I should, writing a defense of Hollywood movies, because I high-tailed my way out of Los Angeles a year after I graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from a prestigious film school.  Let’s just say that Hollywood and I are not exactly kindred spirits when it comes to creativity.


Gone With the WindLiterary adaptations are one of the things filmmakers have been getting right (at least, sometimes) since the earliest days of film.  Anybody ever see Gone With the Wind?  Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of my all-time favorites, but the movie also stands as one of the greatest ever made.  Yes, you will say.  That’s because the adaptation respected the integrity of the story, even if it did deviate in the details to avoid being twelve hours long.  All right.  Let’s stick with movies released in color in 1939 and take a look instead at The Wizard of Oz. 

It’s been many years since I read Frank L. Baum’s original, and I was probably too young to fully comprehend it at the time.  However, I was even younger when I first watched Judy Garland traipse her way down the yellow brick road with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion.  Of the book, I remember little except a general sense of boredom, of wandering through vaguely-connected episodes without much purpose.  Of the movie… if pressed, I could probably recite it.  Even as a child, I knew the lyrics to every song.  There were good guys, bad guys, defined goals, obstacles to struggle through, and plenty of magic (visual and musical, alongside the actual “magic” kind) to stoke the imagination.  I still watch it happily any time I’m flipping channels and find it on TV.  If filmmakers had maintained the integrity of Frank L. Baum’s thinly-veiled treatise about the gold standard, just think how impoverished our culture would be.

The Wizard of OzOK, once.  Once Hollywood managed to take a mediocre book and turn it into a spectacular film by, well, ignoring the author’s original intention.  But that was in 1939, right?  It’s all been downhill since then.

Wrong.  Try Forrest Gump.  If you have not read Winston Groom’s novel, please do not change that fact on my account.  Just believe me when I tell you that it bears no resemblance to the film except its title.  Subtract any sense of coming-of-age nostalgia, of growing alongside history, of the sweet, simple boy from Alabama who waited so patiently for the girl he loved to finally love him, too; then add in a trip to outer space alongside a monkey, a chess-playing cannibal, and a lot of raunchy sex.  How screenwriter Eric Roth ever arrived at the brilliant icon of his craft that became the movie Forrest Gump, I have no idea, but he deserved better than just a “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar for that work.

Forrest GumpIt may be uncouth to say to an audience of bookworms, but sometimes a movie adaptation can be better than the book.

The important point to note is that, of my three examples of adaptations done well, Gone With the Wind remained the closest to the novel because it was the best novel.  Maintaining literary integrity is only a good idea when the book has integrity to maintain.  When the original is flawed, the screenwriter has a duty to his audience to compensate in any way necessary, be it by trimming and clarifying The Wizard of Oz or by completely re-imagining Forrest Gump.  Of course there are more bad adaptations than good ones-bad scripts are easier to write, adapted or otherwise.  Still, great things can happen when great screenwriters free themselves from the shackles of an author’s intention and, instead, do their own work well.

With respect to the specific points my colleagues Angela and Kathryn raised in their posts, I really don’t have much to quibble about.  Winnie-the-Pooh did suffer undue injustice at the hands of Walt Disney, and it really is a shame that people often judge a book by the film (whatever the quality of the adaptation) instead of investing time in the prose.  Even in the case of a movie as classic as Gone With the Wind, you’re still missing out if you leave Margaret Mitchell’s words unread.  However, if filmmakers can find a better story lurking inside a novel than the one the author himself penned, then… I want to watch it.  Don’t you?