The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

3PictureBrokenStainedGlassRandyCalderone

Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)

Preschool suspensions

I don’t think the New York Times‘s “outrage” over preschool suspensions or the implementation of its suggestions found in today’s editorial will amount to much. I submitted this comment:

I wonder if the inappropriate discipline of preschoolers is in part due to, and not counter to, what the editorial board describes as “the very mission of early education, which is to promote school readiness.” I hear in this standard mission statement a sickening preparation of children for institutionalization. Compare this “prep school” notion of early education with, say, Montessori’s: “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers… At no other age has the child a greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.” Instead of preparing the youngest children for school, then, we should prepare schools for the youngest children. I don’t believe Montessori had to suspend anyone despite teaching children from some of the poorest families in Italy. Once we stop putting the cart before the horse and begin to guide with understanding the youngest among us in their education, we’ll find that preschool suspension issues will evaporate.

My children

My children

The city needed lawyers.

– Alister McGrath, from In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

That epigraph has little bearing on this post. I just like the idea of a city needing lawyers. Remember all of those American constitutional lawyers flying to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union? Those were heady days. There’s reason to conclude that Putin has since retained other counsel.

1 John's opening in Tyndale's version
1 John’s opening in Tyndale’s version

Anyway, Geneva needed lawyers, and John Calvin needed work. The rest is history. But I’d like to refer to a little of it here as an introduction to a particular English translation of 1 John 1:1 that has resonated with me a lot lately.

The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a fruit of Calvin’s association with Geneva’s Protestant Reformation, and it remained the most popular English Bible for decades after the King James hit the presses in 1611. Between 1578 and 1616, the “Geneva Bible” also became the common name given to a number of very similar translations, Alister McGrath reports. Christopher Barker, to whom Elizabeth had granted sole publishing rights to the Geneva, would modify the text based on the work of English exiles in Geneva.1 (Why would Elizabeth grant a license to a Bible she didn’t really like? It was complicated, but the biggest factor was the Geneva Bible’s overwhelming popularity in England. Elizabeth was no fool, as I’m sure you know.)

I’m really into how one of these “composite” Bibles (as McGrath calls them) – a 1599 version – renders that first verse, and the next three, of First John.

First John opens like John’s gospel, though the syntax isn’t as grand and doesn’t echo Genesis’s opening as directly. The Word is still the subject, but it’s not the grammatical subject; “That which” is, or, I guess, “was”: “That which was from the beginning.” The epistle’s opening discards the gospel’s anastrophe (“In the beginning was the Word”) for a series of subordinate clauses that makes the subject the object. The epistle sounds flatter, too, and without the slight reverb; we’re exchanging Lawrence Olivier’s intonations for maybe Calvin Coolidge’s.

1 John’s opening in an early Geneva version

The audiences and purposes differ, too. The gospel’s stated audience is those who haven’t heard or believed in the Word, but the epistle’s audience is “my little children.” The gospel’s purpose is that, “believing, you might have life in his name.” The epistle’s purpose – bringing the readers into equal fellowship with the Word the witnesses have seen, heard, and touched – is as focused as its syntax is unfocused. My 1599 Geneva puts all of verse 2 in parenthesis and interrupts verse 3 with an “I say” just to signal that we’re trying to complete the sentence the epistle starts with. Just to clean things up for the English eye and ear.

Now we’re getting to what I love about the 1599 version of 1 John’s opening. Where Tyndale (an earlier New Testament version) has “which we have sene with oure eyes which we have loked vpon and oure hondes have hadled,” my 1599 Geneva adds words to create an incredulous tone through an occasional iambic meter:

That which was from the beginning, which wee haue heard, which wee haue seene with these our eyes, which wee haue looked vpon, and these handes of ours haue handled of that Word of life, [emphasis mine]

I can see John, standing before his children, pointing his index fingers to his eyes at “seen” and “these” and “eyes,” and repeatedly moving his outspread fingers away from his breast to the rhythm of “hands” and “ours” and “handled.”

You need a fix of incarnation or immanence? Meditate on this, children.

° ° °

We’ll be in the flesh at Kenyon for B’s senior art show this weekend. Very excited about it. So nice to have the four of us together again.

For her wide-ranging project, B’s been bringing in extra help – a physics professor to help her with electrical issues, some kind fellow students to help her with installation and other matters. Before she started, she knew almost as little as I do about physics, but her outreach to the physics professor landed her this semester in what has become one of her favorite courses, a survey of the physics involved in different gadgets, some of which the students get to create. Kenyon’s been a good match for B’s art because she wants to incorporate stuff outside of traditional art-think (whatever that is).

Her two-week spring break ended today. It really wasn’t a break; she and her fellow senior art majors, about twenty of them, had moved into some new dorms and had worked on the ten-day show that opens Wednesday night.

° ° °

I don’t know how many winter breaks we’ve had. We celebrated the season’s fourteenth snow day today after last night’s nine inches. So today I shoveled, napped, and graded essays. We’re now a day shy of missing three weeks of school. We’re also a day shy of using up all of our fifteen-snow-day allotment. After Day Fifteen, they’ll extend the school year further into June.

It snowed some more today after school was canceled, and it stayed below freezing all day, too, but they’re still making us go back tomorrow. It’s possible, though, we’ll get another snowstorm before the month’s over, according to the weather bureau’s long-range forecast. After all of this, I’d hate to leave that last day on the table.

  1. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, at 128.

Jesus teaches the comparison and contrast essay

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix - van GoghJesus is a rhetorician, and he teaches the modes. Today he teaches comparison and contrast.

“Teach us to pray,” a student asks.1 So Jesus compares God to an unloving friend. He loans bread, but he doesn’t give it. He loans bread to his friend not because he’s a friend but because he’s pestered.2

Later, teaching on prayer again, Jesus compares God to an unjust judge. The judge gives justice not because he’s a judge – he owns that he neither fears God nor respects men – but because he’s pestered.3

We get these comparisons, but we don’t get the contrasts. So we learn the wrong lesson: we base our prayer not on friendship or justice but on magic and importunity.

Then Jesus teaches on our life’s calling. He compares God to a hard man, a man who makes others do the work, but who gets all the profit.4

Knowing this, the man’s servant buries his talent. I buried mine, too.

° ° °

“You’ve got me confused with another master!” he responded. “I am loving and gracious; I’m not a hard man, as you call me. I don’t reap where I haven’t sown; I don’t gather where I haven’t scattered. I represent God in this parable. He’s a loving father and only wants the best for you. Therefore, you should have used your talent and not have buried it.”

It doesn’t end that way.

° ° °

Jesus speaks in parables because they’re all we can hear.5 They are, in part, our echoes. Or our mirrors. If they reflect our false selves, they’ll point to a false god. When they ask him why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah:

“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”6

God doesn’t necessarily speak plainly to Christians,7 I think, but to his creation – to the trees and rocks and sun. But I have created myself.8 Somewhere God was absent, and there I parented myself. There my understanding of the parables may say more about me than the parables say about God.

The experience of helping an emotionally wounded friend seems apt. How can you help him see beyond his difficult upbringing? Even though you dare not speak too plainly, your friend still may misunderstand your words, even your intentions. One way to think about Jesus’ parables is to reflect on such sessions.

Most of us were orphaned on some landing of the heart, and from there we’ve seen the Father as an uncaring friend, an unjust judge, or a hard man. From there we’ve taken ourselves in and raised our false selves.

“Born again” without growing up again is just a different orphaning, albeit a religious one. But growing up again, this time as God’s creation, is hard work. After baptism “our life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self . . . and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God,” Thomas Merton writes.9 When I choose the latter over and over, I begin to share the integrity of the rocks and the trees. And I begin to hear better.

Jesus compares God to an evil father.10 Isaiah compares God to an unmindful mother.11 Those are tributes to many people’s experiences. But Jesus and Isaiah ultimately find the comparisons inadequate. “How much more . . .” Jesus says. “She may forget, but . . .” Isaiah says. We comprehend the comparisons because we’ve lived harder lives than we know. But we don’t comprehend the contrasts because they’re untold, unexplained, or unillustrated. They’re beyond. When they touch on God’s character, they’re apophatic. They sometimes point to something we haven’t experienced, or haven’t experienced enough.

Jesus’ parables suggest the Word’s mission in the depths of my being.


Painting:
The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by van Gogh.

  1. Luke 11:1
  2. Luke 11:5 – 10.
  3. Luke 18.1 – 8.
  4. Matthew 25:14 – 30.
  5. Matthew 13:10 – 17.
  6. Id.
  7. Jesus’ disciples said with relief at the Last Supper: “Now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech” (John 16:20). One such figure of speech – we must eat his body and drink his blood – thinned the ranks of the disciples considerably (John 6:53 – 67). John’s Jesus prefers metaphorical language, while Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels prefers parables. Both forms of speech seem encompassed by the phrase “dark sayings” that Jesus adapts from Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:35).
  8. Ephesians 4:22 – 24.
  9. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation at 41 – 42.
  10. Luke 11:13.
  11. Isaiah 49:15.