Dappled Links

Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy – The Atlantic
Fantasy author Lev Grossman reflects on the special power of Narnia.

Finding the Words – The New Yorker
“There’s one other thing I’d like to tell you about my grief: I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t read. Even poetry, which had always come to my rescue, couldn’t protect or console me.”

A Conversation with Christian Wiman – Image
“I wrote somewhere or other that to love one’s life is to assent to its terms, the severest of which is death.”

The Poetry of World War I – Poetry
Poems about the war, ordered by the year of their writing.

Baseball and Blaise Pascal

New RosenblattJune 14, 2014

It’s Opening Day at the College World Series, and I am heartbroken because my LSU Tigers blew a four run lead in the eighth inning of the NCAA Regional and they are not in Omaha. I will have to settle for cheering on our fellow SEC schools, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, because for a die-hard fan like me, not watching is not an option. I don’t make it to the stadium quite as often as I’d like these days, but in college, I was “that” kid, the lone soul toughing it out in the student section through two-hour rain delays against Nobody State. However, LSU’s early exit from this year’s tournament has left me more reading time than I really like to have during the postseason, which I have occupied with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. That is how my brain happened to slam with the force of a Babe Ruth swing into this:


Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

How does it happen that this man, so distressed at the death of his wife and his only son… seems so free from all painful and disquieting thoughts? We need not wonder; for a ball has been served him, and he must return it to his companion. He is occupied in catching it in its fall from the roof, to win a game. How can he think of his own affairs, pray, when he has this other matter in hand?…

The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves… and leads unconsciously to death.


Time out, Umpire. Did he just say that baseball is killing me?

If Pascal was speaking of spiritual death, then I admit being a sports fan can be the near occasion of a host of sins. Drunkenness, for one, or the temptation to exhaust one’s savings on tickets, parking passes, fan merchandise, etc. Gluttony finds easy prey at my alma mater on game day; there is no culinary experience on earth quite like an LSU tailgate party. However, the acts of eating, drinking, or buying a ticket are not inherently sinful. A little temperance can allow one to enjoy an evening at the ballpark guilt-free, nor is it the sinfulness of sports and other diversions that Pascal objects to. Rather, it is the fact that they “hinder us from reflecting upon ourselves.”

He goes on to explain that “our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves” about the immortality of the soul, and neglecting this exercise for the pursuit of vain diversions is “monstrous.” No Christian can, in good conscience, disagree with that assertion, and in a society that has turned proliferating distractions into a global economic force, Pascal’s words ring truer than ever before. The screens and speakers that surround us, flashing and screaming for attention everywhere we go, are destroying our ability to focus. We cannot contemplate what to eat for lunch without our minds drifting toward virtual realities. Are such brains even capable of pondering things immortal and divine? Distraction is deadly, and in more ways than Pascal could possibly have understood in the seventeenth century.

I know this. I recognize my own susceptibility, and I strive not to be one of “those who pass their life without thinking of [its] ultimate end.” But I still love baseball, and reading Pascal has not changed that.


First, because baseball–or any sport–is a form of theater. It is a play whose end even the actors do not know. A battle unfolds that pits skill against skill, where elements beyond human control (wind, sun, rain) sometimes intervene to turn drama into comedy or victory into defeat. A story unfolds, and we immerse ourselves in sympathy with the players: a kind of pretending the benefits of which I have discussed on this blog before. There is catharsis in winning, and a genuine lesson in living through a beloved team’s defeat.

Sporting events can, however, offer more. There are only two places I know where people go with the intention of chanting in an assembly: a sports stadium and a church or synagogue. There are liturgical echoes in the way sporting events unfold, and there is real communion–not the heavenly, Eucharistic kind, but human communion–in joining one’s voice to thousands of one’s fellow creatures, in sharing each other’s shouts of joy and groans of disappointment. There are no Republicans or Democrats in a stadium, no Christians or atheists. The only “left” and “right” are on the field. When a homerun sails over the wall, no one asks the person in front of him about his ideology; they just smile at each other and trade a high five. It is this that I love most about baseball. Communion builds community, and it is important, especially in a society as fractured and contentious as ours, to find opportunities to shed our labels and become one.

Of course, communion that is not heavenly holds the danger of fooling us into believing we have found fulfillment in earthly pleasure. This is the danger of all good earthly things, the old Augustinian problem of failing to see the Creator within the created. I suspect this danger is at the root of Pascal’s disdain for all diversions, but is avoiding entertainment really the solution? A cloistered, diversion-free life is a good one, for those who are called to it, but such singular focus on holy things is impossible for most of us. Can you imagine trying to raise children without any way to keep them entertained? But why would you even want to try, when children learn things like empathy, teamwork, and problem solving by playing games?

I do not think “diversions” are the problem, but rather the distorted pride of place we sometimes give them in our lives. Pascal was right that it is incumbent upon us all to reflect soberly on the human condition, to face the hard reality that we are mortal, and not to divert ourselves from the work of the soul. However, I would add that much of the work of the soul is experiential. We choose our diversions because they satisfy at least partially some intrinsic need, and it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whatever you choose to do with your time, the question to ask is, “Why?” If your entertainments are merely substitutes for things that could lead you toward holiness, then it is time to set them aside. But if they still have work to do within you and the people you share them with, then carry on.

Warren Morris

Now, let’s play ball!

What García Márquez Meant to the Macondians

Gabriel Gracia MarquezDappled Things president Bernardo Aparicio García weighed in about the death of the most beloved writer from his native Colombia, Gabriel García Márquez.

Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s contained within itself Hell and Paradise all at once, each in its full force, neither diluting the other. This point is essential to understand why so many of us have taken to calling our beloved Nobel Laureate, the late Gabriel García Márquez, the most important Colombian who ever lived.

Read more at The Millions.

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.