Saturday, January 30, 2010

He Came to Himself

It's the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. I've been reading some homilies on the subject, because I'm afraid I'll miss my own priest's sermon tomorrow because of illness.

One thing that impressed me about the story was the distance factor. The son was in a far country, when he realized what he needed to do. He was hungry and wasted, but he still needed to rise and go, to travel a long way, which must have been a struggle.

All of humanity is represented by the prodigal son, and most of us are still on the journey. Some of us have repented and are a bit farther on our way, but we are all clothed in our flesh, struggling with our sins, anticipating the day when we sit in the Kingdom and feast with our Father, enjoying the restoration of our full inheritance.

In the story, the son receives everything he had thrown away and lost. For now, we have the earnest of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God to help us continue. Every day I need to decide to take the next step on the way. But I know more than the son in the parable, who hoped for a corner of the pig shed. "...for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." (Hebrews 11:6)

I'm afraid I often act a bit nonchalant, as though I am at the gate or even in my Father's arms already. My initial coming to myself has to be followed up by a constant facing-up to the toil of the road. Maybe I have been sitting on the grassy shoulder wishing the trip weren't so long, wondering if maybe someone will arrive and carry me the rest of the way.

St. Herman of Alaska reminds me: "The true Christian is a warrior making his way through the regiments of the invisible enemy to his heavenly homeland."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flowers in January

 We forever parched Californians have had a satisfying amount of rain lately. When the sun came out this week I ventured into the back yard to find the flowers that had bloomed in the midst of the downpours.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This is Not a Cat!

About 7 o'clock this morning I put out a little cat food in advance of the guests' arrival. A few minutes later a large non-feline shape loomed into view. I've never seen such a big raccoon in our suburban neighborhood! And isn't it a little late in the "night" for him to be out scavenging?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hungry Cats in Bleak Midwinter

"Bleak Midwinter" might be the title of some news articles of this day, deemed by at least one researcher as the likeliest day of the year for a peak in emotional depression. His formula takes into account failed New Year's resolutions, the economy, the weather, and I suppose the fact that it is Monday.

Could I be counted in the numbers, because I found it harder to get myself out of bed this morning than I did last Monday? It was on the way to the gym that I heard the "news," and it made me happy just thinking that the endorphins I was about to produce would help me through this day.

It's another way of describing bleak midwinter, I thought as I was driving home, and wondered where that phrase came from. It didn't take long to find out again what I had certainly known in the past, that "In the Bleak Midwinter" is the title of Christina Rossetti's poem that ends, "What can I give Him? Give Him my heart."

Yesterday I was told that the human soul is infinitely empty, because it is designed to hold the infinite God in Trinity. For us to become aware of our emptiness and need for God is a good thing, so some amount of what we might call depression could serve us that way. As Oswald Chambers wrote, "Sorrow burns up a great amount of shallowness."

St. Silouan said that we ought to "keep our minds in hell and despair not." Don't forget all there is to grieve over, don't pretend that the world isn't lost in sin, but come to Christ with your grief--otherwise you can't help but despair.

Moving on to things I know more about: the cats in my neighborhood. While we had our own cats, I mostly chased the others away from our yard, but now I have leftover food since Gus died, and it seems right to share it with them. Occasionally I set out some kibble in his old bowl, if it isn't raining.

 The markings on this black and white cat make for an optical illusion that his head is misshapen. At least, I think that's why he looks so ugly, but I suspect he doesn't spend much time in front of the mirror fretting about it.

There are at least five cats who pass by on their daily prowl. If I hold very still I can take their pictures, but for the most part they are shy about coming so close to the house when they can see a strange human on the other side of the door. One or another will sometimes make eye contact with me, and then after a few seconds, bolt away as though he got a deadly revelation.

You might recognize the striped cat at left, because I wrote about her already, here , here and here. You'll have to look back at one of those posts to see her amazing eyes. She doesn't come around nearly as much as she used to, when she liked to follow Gus and pester him.

B. was startled by a big raccoon on the other side of the glass the other night, gobbling up food I'd forgotten to bring in at dusk. The picture shows what were probably that guy's ancestors, caught while enjoying the spoils after they tipped over a whole bucket of cat food, many years past.

I think my favorite cat lately is the black one below, because after watching me watch him emptying the bowl, he sat down to just be near me for a spell.

When we humans notice that our cups and bowls are empty, we can simply hold them up to our Lord and He will fill them, as He told us (John 6:51): "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Homey and Rainy with Cookies

Today Husband had the day off, and neither of us was sick! The forecast was for a few hours' break in the rain, so our plan was to prune rosebushes. When the rain let up, we were ready, and pruned the two tea roses "by committee" as B. said, afterward piling up weeds carefully pulled away from struggling ranunculus.

Then we brought in a fresh supply of firewood and re-positioned the tarps that always get blown off in storms. Little patters of rain came on just as we were finishing that job, and I thought our yard work was finished for the day.

But no sooner had I got a good fire going, and iced my aching elbow, than the sun came out! I ran out to at least get a start on the climbing roses. They seemed to take forever the last two winters when I carefully cut and trained their branches.

Today I was gleefully shocked to get them both done in an hour or so--before the rain began again! Maybe it's because I am more ruthless now that I've seen how the later growth is always so lush. It seemed like such a gift from God, to just have a "normal" day without sickness or weather standing in the way of my work.

We were expecting son P., coming from the airport with his Special Friend just in time for dinner. And B. had been hinting around about how some people like to bake cookies on rainy days. So I got on the ball and made cookies, soup and toasted almonds, all while keeping The Home Fires Burning. Wheee! I felt sorta like my old self.

I decided to make the cookies with some of the non-wheat flours I have around. They are wheat-free but not gluten-free, because spelt flour does contain gluten.

Wheat-Free Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookies

3 cubes butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon walnut flavoring
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups white spelt flour
1 cup whole spelt flour
1 1/2 cups oat flour
1 12-oz package chocolate chips
3 tablespoons finely-ground decaf coffee beans
1/3 cup cacao nibs
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Mix as for any cookies. I baked them about 13 minutes per insulated cookie sheet, at 375°, but I think I might try 350° if I make them again, to see if I could get them to be a little softer. They had a slight crispiness to the outside. The flavor was wonderful, and everyone loved them. I used a normal white-flour recipe I'd used before and changed and added things this time, cutting back on the sugar as well as adding all those crunchies. If you make it with white flour you might not need as much; I had increased the flour by 1/2 cup because they say that spelt flour doesn't absorb as much moisture.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Apricot Pie

Before Advent, I'd resolved to bake fewer cookies and more pies at Christmas. I managed to do just that. One new pie I made was apricot. It was a big hit. No one ever seems to mind my unusual crust formations. You can see more of this accidental art in the other "pie" category posts.

(The book picture wanted to be included in this blog, for the obvious reason of its title, but also because it was wrapped and under the tree while we were smelling the pie baking.)

Lacking fresh apricots in the winter, I planned to use canned fruit, but in order to get more intense flavor I added some dried apricots.

Here's how I did it:

Christmas Apricot Pie

4 15-oz cans apricot halves
1 cup packed dried Blenheim apricots
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
dough for a two-crust deep-dish pie

Put the dried fruit in a pan with the water, cover and cook on very low heat until the apricots are stewed and mushy. When cool, add the sugar, arrowroot, and almond extract.

Roll out the bottom crust and put it in the pie plate. Drain the canned apricots and spread them as neatly as possible on the crust. Slather the stewed apricot mixture on top of the apricot halves. Roll out the remainder of dough to form the top crust, and lay it on. Trim the crusts to even them out, and fold the two layers under together so that the raw edges are hiding against the edge of the pie plate. Crimp and flute this rounded edge, and make a few slashes through the top of the crust.
Bake at 450° for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350° for another 40 or 50 minutes. I always like to wrap some foil around the edge for part of the baking period to prevent over-browning. This post shows that technique, and also another vegan apricot pie I made once or twice. I hate to even mention such a variation in the context of a Christmas feast.

What we ended up with was defintely a deep dish pie; the recipe could probably be made with just three cans of fruit, keeping the other ingredients basically the same. The amount of sugar seemed to be just right; there wasn't so much that it masked the distinctive apricot tang.

If you can't find Blenheim apricots, I'm afraid you won't get the same rich flavor we enjoyed. They are worth hunting down. The package I used had been sitting around for the better part of a year with no loss of flavor, and I will probably buy some more at Trader Joe's pretty soon, so that there won't be any question about being ready for next Christmas and what may be our new tradition.

The little guy at right doesn't have much to do with my subject, but writing about pies always seems to make me a little goofy. Anyway, he looks cute enough to eat.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trying to Focus, on a Wintry Day

Into the blowing and pouring rain I forced myself this morning, so that I could use the machines at the gym. While walking on the treadmill for an hour, I read The New Yorker Food Issue from last November. I pick these magazines up at the library for 25 cents each, and usually find at least one article, though not usually in the Food Issue, to keep my attention while I work out. (I have tried many other reading materials, and everything else is either too heady and distracting, or too boring to keep my mind off the discomfort.)

Today I learned about a cake that is baked on a spit for several hours and is called Baumkuchen, which means Tree Cake in German, because some of them are cone-shaped like a tree. These cakes date back to the Middle Ages, and currently are pretty popular in Japan.

I read about poutine, beloved especially of youth in Canada, where I think I could get into eating it, at least in winter, when one might be able to burn enough calories shoveling snow and keeping warm so as not to put on the pounds from enjoying a dish that consists of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy.

The Michelin Guide to restaurants took several pages to explain, after the author hung out with one of the inspectors for the company during a meal at a three-star restaurant. These inspectors and their identities are top-secret and incognito, so that they can remain objective and also get the same food and treatment as any old customer who is willing to pay dearly for their daily bread.

Later in the morning I read a blog about how good homeschooling can be if the family actually stays home a lot, so that the children can concentrate on whatever it is they are doing and not be constantly interrupted by having to run hither and thither to group classes and such. That got me thinking about how it is better for me, too, still a self-homeschooler, an autodidact, who always gets confused and scattered when I have to come and go.

I read another blog that linked to an interview with Makoto Fujimura, a Christian Japanese-American artist who has a lot to say about God and creativity. I remembered that I'd heard a different interview with him not long ago on the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and I was able to locate the tape and listen to him. I was not able to multi-task, though; I found that if I tried to find his website at the same time, I stopped listening.

I started to take notes on the audio interview. He was talking about how the habit of reading is even more important to cultivate now that our society is so image-oriented. Also about how all the fast-action images that people are feeding on teach their minds to avoid real concentration. They scan, instead of engaging with visual information in a more focused manner. I was still feeling distracted myself and wondering why I was picking this one topic and writer to think about. Was I randomly and shallowly scanning?

No, I had wanted to listen to him again and think more about these things. But if I hadn't gone to the gym and taken hours to collect myself afterward, I'm not sure I'd have had so much trouble being calmly thoughtful. In the early afternoon I had to go out again and run errands--more dissipation of mental energies!

I was saved by duty--my husband's needs were what helped me to pull myself together. We were nearly out of granola, his staff of life. And he would need a real dinner. (Without him, I'd eat eggs and toast and tea forever.) He would like to feel the warmth of a fire as he came in the door from work. When I got a fire kindled and started assembling the granola I was happy to give my attention to concrete and practical tasks.

This granola has fed the family for more than 35 years. I make a huge batch still, so that I don't have to do it very often, even though B. often eats Power Pancakes for breakfast nowadays. The basic proportions of oats, honey and oil have remained the same, while the extras of nuts, seeds and other grains are infinitely flexible. It doesn't make a very sweet cold cereal, as you might guess if you compare with other recipes. 

GretchenJoanna's Granola

30-32 cups of regular rolled oats, divided
3-5 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
2-5 cups chopped almonds and/or other nuts
0-2 cups each of wheat germ, sesame seeds, buckwheat groats, rice or oat bran
0-1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups oil
2 cups honey (or substitute part sugar syrup, made with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water)
3 tablespoons vanilla, or substitute part almond extract

Put 20 cups of the oats in a giant bowl. Add whatever other dry ingredients appeal. In a pot, heat and stir the wet ingredients gently and slowly together until the honey is liquid. Pour onto the dry ingredients and stir to moisten them thoroughly. Then add the other 10-12 cups of oats and mix in evenly.

Spread up to an inch deep in pans and bake in batches at 300° until as toasty brown as you like it, stirring every ten minutes. Lately I've been using big roasting pans that happen to have 2" sides, but the toasting may happen faster using pans with less lip. I use the biggest pans I have, and both oven racks, so that it doesn't take all day. :-)

I store a gallon jar of this on the kitchen counter, and the remainder in the freezer.

I was going to show a photo of the big bowl of finished granola, but my camera battery is spent. So here is a picture of someone enjoying an early version of GJ's Granola, circa 1977 (notice the gold draperies and tablecloth).

Time for bed now, and thank God, I can end the day having accomplished reading, writing, and homemaking, even if I wasn't very organized in my concentrating. I want to do better tomorrow.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What I Did on Zacchaeus Sunday

In the Orthodox Church Lent is a long and sweet, helpful preparation for Easter, Resurrection Sunday, PASCHA! But four weeks before Lent we get to start preparing for the preparation, you might say, by means of four thematic Sundays. I'm so glad Deb wrote about this, better than I could have. But what I would like to mention is that it was on Zacchaeus Sunday, which was yesterday, that I became an official catechumen three years ago.

I had been a sort of unofficial catechumen for about seven years before that, so my official period was not long--just about long enough to get ready for Lent, and then enter into its "joy-creating sorrow" and finally be baptized on Holy Saturday. Every Pascha, indeed every Sunday, I remember that event of fully entering the Church, but I mark my first formal commitment with every Zacchaeus Sunday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Any Lurkers Out There?

I just found out, a little late, that someone has declared this National Delurker Day.  I hereby invite anyone who hasn't already, to say hello.

It's o.k. if you want to stay as you are, though. I understand!

(I changed the picture because a dear person pointed out to me that the first one was a tad unseemly. So now I have an N.C. Wyeth painting called "Winter" here, that reminds me how nice it is to be able to lurk at home in January.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Promise of Happiness

“Beauty is the promise of Happiness,” said Stendhal, quoted in The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton.

Written in this 21st century, it is billed as an introduction to architecture. As for decades I have been discovering an appreciation for buildings, and at the same time have been realizing my ignorance of artistic principles generally, I was really ready for De Botton’s helpful study, which doesn’t catalog architectural styles –I seem to have a mental block against learning these—but explains why we humans might like or dislike particular buildings:

“We are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.”

John Ruskin said that we want our buildings to shelter us and to speak to us, of what we find important and need reminders of. These values can change somewhat across centuries and cultures, but de Botton lists several “virtues of buildings” that are required if they are to be beautiful.

1) Order. But not over-simplified. We like to see complex elements arranged in a regular pattern.

What the author calls the “perverse dogma” from the Romantic Period, that all edifices must be of original design, led to chaos in the landscape. “Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.”

2) Balance. Some concepts to be mediated are old and new, natural and man-made, luxurious and modest, masculine and feminine. This chapter gave me the most trouble. The photographs showed supposed balance that looked incongruous to me. I don’t like bare concrete, to start with. My tastes prove the point made by another quote from Stendhal: “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”

3) Elegance. When the achievement of strength or energy looks effortless and modest as in the Salginatobel Bridge in Switzerland, above.

4) Coherence. The building should not be a hodgepodge of styles. I’ll say it should be a clear declarative sentence. [I must like those a lot; I wrote this months before my last book review.] And that “sentence” should make sense in the context of its “paragraph.” As Louis Sullivan said, for example, tall buildings are all about loftiness, and that statement is made by every line of a skyscraper contributing to its being “a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation….”

A building should fit into its historical and cultural place as well as its physical setting. De Botton considers one failure in this regard to be the exact replica of an 18th century village style built in the late 20th century in Poundbury, Dorchester, a psychological and practical disconnect. Others have commented on this housing development's good and bad aspects. It was the brainchild of Prince Charles, by the way, who seems to be always pulling weight against what he considers ugly modern architecture.

The author helped me understand why a building that I have enjoyed is not appreciated in its home town. After reading Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather many years ago, I was excited to visit the 19th-century cathedral that was actually commissioned by the priest who was somewhat fictionalized in the novel, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At that time I thought the disregard of the beautiful building was likely because of its Christian history and purpose, in a town that is now in love with its more pagan native roots.

Now I understand that while Fr. Lamy conceived of a church he knew to be beautiful, that of his beloved French homeland, if he had been of the modern architect's sensibility he would have altered the design to reflect his new home and climate. But I don't believe he was an architect in the first place.

I appreciated the building for its Christian and literary history, even if it is in the Romanesque Revival style. It at least is built of local New Mexican stone; I know of beautiful houses in California that have design elements that required the transport of huge stones from Japan, to keep the whole piece of art Japanese--but what about the context?

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, as it was designated in 2005, looks more odd all the time in the town of Santa Fe, which has, perhaps somewhat in the spirit of Poundsbury, tried to homogenize its architectural style:
By an ordinance passed in 1958, new and rebuilt buildings, especially those in designated historic districts, must exhibit a Spanish Territorial or Pueblo style of architecture, with flat roofs and other features suggestive of the area's traditional adobe construction. However, many contemporary houses in the city are built from lumber, concrete blocks, and other common building materials, but with stucco surfaces (sometimes referred to as "faux-dobe", pronounced as one word: "foe-dough-bee") reflecting the historic style. [from Wikipedia]
Of course, these efforts to "pueblofy" the city have meant a loss of the eclectic elements from the past, though it was all done in the interest of promoting tourism and preventing decline of another sort.

De Botton writes of buildings having an aesthetic mission, and if one is on a mission, the last listed quality is crucial:

5) Self-knowledge. When I first saw that heading, I thought, This is carrying the anthropomorphism too far. I was relieved to find that the author was by now speaking not of buildings but of us humans, especially of the architects among us.

We need to understand our human nature in all its complexity if we want to avoid the utopianism of the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who seemed to have many radical plans, at least some of which we can be thankful were not accomplished, such as tearing out the heart of Paris in 1922 to replace it with 16 residential skyscrapers, some of which would house 40,000 people each. He wanted to eliminate suburbs, and abolish city streets, and glancing across the ocean, to raze Manhattan and start over. For one thing, its skyscrapers were too short.

Getting back to that quality of balance, I'm wondering if my own distaste for concrete is perhaps as closed minded as Prince Charles tends to be. My snobbishness made it hard to appreciate Grace Cathedral when I visited it last month, because though it has soaring arches and design beauty, it lacks the natural stone of the cathedrals I enjoyed in England.

I should remember that concrete is only a type of cast stone, which has a long history in antiquity, as I learned from reading The Pyramids: An Enigma Solved  by Joseph Davidovits. He argues that at least the outer casing stones of the pyramids themselves were built from a masonry product poured on-site. It's been more than ten years since I read this book when the children and I were studying ancient history, and I plan to read it again soon.

My own church is built of concrete, though one can't see any of that base material anymore, covered as it is now in plaster and icons and marble. And on the subject of church architecture, I hope to write more, as my excitement grows into deeper understanding.

Thanks to De Botton, I have a little more foundational knowledge to aid me in my explorations. His style is slow and thoroughgoing in explanations of concepts, so much so that it took some getting used to; but I soon came to appreciate his carefulness. He includes many photographs to flesh out the architectural ideas he presents to the reader.

Alain De Botton is a philosopher as much as an artist, and helped to found a school called The School of Life. He has written several books, and my intention is that The Architecture of Happiness will be just the first of other thought-provoking works of his that I read.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Feasting - Water and Light

I'm glad that in the Orthodox Church we can enjoy the blessings of each major feast for at least several days following, as it makes it possible for me to catch up after not having a computer for a while, and still be current.

Theophany, January 6, celebrates the baptism of Christ and His revealing as the Son of God. There is the blessing of water:
"It begins with the singing of special hymns and the censing of the water which has been placed in the center of the church building. Surrounded by candles and flowers, this water stands for the beautiful world of God's original creation and ultimate glorification by Christ in the Kingdom of God." [all my quotes are from this site]
"It is the faith of Christians that since the Son of God has taken human flesh and has been immersed in the streams of the Jordan, all matter is sanctified and made pure in him, purged of its death-dealing qualities inherited from the devil and the wickedness of men. In the Lord's epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed 'very good,' the way that God himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when 'the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters' (Gen 1:2) and when the 'Breath of Life' was breathing in man and in everything that God made (Gen 1:30; 2:7).
...and there is the rich troparion of the feast that sang itself again and again in my mind, and in my thankful heart, for days:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee his Beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
I read once a comment from a Lutheran man who had attended a conference on Orthodoxy. He said that it seemed to him the central theme of the Lutheran Church was justification, and the central theme of the Orthodox was The Holy Trinity. What a huge difference he saw!

And so it has always seemed to me, that every other Christian group or institution gets a bit sidetracked, focusing on a part of the whole, while in Orthodoxy you find God Himself in Three Persons, united in Love, at the center--an unfathomable treasure store of Life and Wisdom and whatever one might need.

The Feast of Theophany includes the revelation of the Trinity, and the Enlightening of the World (Epiphany) by that revelation. There is so much to comprehend just in this one event, I know I can only grasp a fragment. But maybe year by year I will take in a little more. Last week I was quite overwhelmed with what I understood, and I do thank God for all He has done.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Suffering Through a Book

The initial reason I didn't like The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns was his bad writing. I didn't expect this, as he is a poet. It's possible he's a bad poet. I think poets ought to be even more careful about their words than most people, not wasting them. But some would-be poets might just love words so much that they lavish them on the page indiscriminately.

Cairns wastes words in several ways. He uses way too many, painfully hemming and hawing around, seemingly unable to write simple declarative sentences. Every page is padded with  phrases such as "In any case, all of this is to say...," "I am supposing," and "It may be fair to say." In reading some of these sentences aloud to my daughter I couldn't keep from laughing. My favorite is "I am thinking..." as an introduction to many of Cairns' ideas. Doesn't Paraclete Press have editors?

Even if I were a professional with an editor to look over my work, I would re-read it several times myself, with hopes of noticing that I had used another unnecessary phrase, "it seems to me" twice on one page, and the word "notoriously" twice on another. By the way, the text on these pages fills the space of a small postcard, and the whole book is barely over 100 pages, making for high percentage of poorly written content--and, adding to my annoyance, a poor return on the $15 I spent on it.

His word usage is odd, if not downright misleading. Example: "In appalling condescension, [Christ] remains Emmanuel, God with us." I'm sorry, but appalling is not the word to describe God's loving attitude toward us, as its meaning is "to fill or overcome with horror, consternation, or fear; dismay." This is not poetic license, but rather abuse, of a good, strong word.

When I read the next example my suspicion continued to grow that Cairns had little wisdom to impart: "I have begun to discover how perplexity is not such a bad disposition to cultivate, considering." Perplexed means confused, Scott! How on earth does one cultivate a confused state of mind? For a start, write sloppily.

This misuse of individual words is another way that Cairns wastes them. Perhaps the worst case I found is also an indicator that the author doesn't know what he is talking about. Why would he use the word tweaking in the following passage, a word that means the making of a "slight adjustment" or a "gentle pinch" ?

     Life Himself, of course, has already accomplished an absolute trumping of death; we need only to notice, and by our noticing thereafter to participate in His continuing triumph.
    That said, our ability to participate in this recovery appears to be dependent upon our tweaking our own, dissipated persons, and healing a concurrent rift in our own, discretely fragmented selves....

I'm sorry I had to put you through such a long passage just to make an example. Typing that out makes me wonder even harder if what we have here is not a word usage problem, but a theological problem. I admit that I am not skilled at spiritual warfare, but noticing and tweaking are not actions that have been recommended to me as effective by those who are.

Cairns seems ambivalent about people who have already written about suffering. What led me to buy his book after a brief perusal were the many references to good writers and poets, such as Alexander Schmemann and Emily Dickinson. This quote from Simone Weil is featured prominently on the inside cover: "The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it."

That quote helps explain what the author intends to do in the book, to talk about the purpose, not the cessation, of suffering, to use one meaning of the word end. In the prologue he writes:

     Given affliction's generous availability, and given the wide, but so far unsatisfying, range of apologia that the nagging enigma of our human suffering has provoked over the years, I thought I might press ahead for a more satisfying glimpse of why it is we suffer, and why it is that some of us--even among the apparently innocent--appear to suffer far more than others.
     At the very least, I would like to come up with a less specious way of talking about it.

He goes on to disparage the "disturbing pieties" and "commonplace yammerings" that humans offer to one another in affliction, and to say that "my own faltering faith has come to demand a somewhat more satisfying take on this ubiquitous business of affliction."

I have neglected to say much about how the book fulfills that goal, because, when I was nearing the end, it dawned on me that I hadn't got any clear idea of his take on suffering. I had alternated between underlining passages of bad writing and marking pithy quotes from other writers. But as to the purpose of suffering, the communication was lost in a fog of often puzzling statements about various aspects of the Christian life.

More than one literary person has told me that if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books, a lot of them. We assume that Cairns read the authors he quotes, but he doesn't exclude them from his condemnation of the "range of apologia" as specious. I wish he had demanded satisfaction from someone more qualified than himself to accomplish the task. But wait--I see from the passage quoted above that he was only looking to provide a satisfying glimpse. That explains it. For any further reading I do on the subject, I might consult his references.

Forgive me for going on and on about such a little book. Better books don't seem to require so much effort to write about, and my inability to give a brief and pithy review shows my own lack of skill. At least, I got some reading and writing practice out of the suffering I endured.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Opinions of Books of 2009

These are not reviews, but I'm afraid if I wait until I get my own computer back and write a decent review or two, someone will already have started reading an inferior book just because I didn't warn them.

You might guess from the list of Abandoned Books that those would not be recommended, and you'd be right. But even some of them might be worth the reading for someone else. I just don't have time--I'm counting the minutes, almost, and easily get impatient, if I start to feel that there isn't enough return for my efforts.

But of the books that I completed, there are also some that I would put on the Worst Books Read in 2009 list:
Pig Tale
Living With the Laird
The End of Suffering

And my Favorites of the Year were:
The Architecture of Happiness
The Birds Fall Down
A Thousand Splendid Suns
The Inner Kingdom

I plan to write further on Architecture and Suffering [Suffering is now linked to a review]. And in the upcoming year I want to keep better account of what I read, and maybe do a better job of reviewing, so that next January it will be a snap to post my lists, and they will have more information attached.

To all my reader readers, may your books be nourishing in 2010!

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Gifts

"I don't like my life!" This surprising phrase repeatedly ran through my mind before Christmas. Egads, how could I be thinking something so discontented?

Was it just a variation on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!"? Maybe. Or, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." And along more housewifely lines, "I can't concentrate on anything productive because the house is so messy!" and even more specifically, realities like, "I want to write, but I can't find my notebook."

This new year has started off with a broken computer--an inconvenience that brings gifts: I am forced out of my routine, or rut, and get a boost toward a possibly more likeable life. The other gift is a son with a computer, newly arrived here, so that if I really need to I can use his machine. We and the computer repairman can all relax over a long weekend.

Do the following fall within the definition of resolutions? My feelings don't appear strong enough to be called resolve, but I do have general good intentions to improve on some things. A lot of the same old things, in fact, though the outward shapes of the projects are revised.

1. Finish making a bedroom into a sewing room.

2. Take the time to sort and organize notes about reading and writing in such a way that I can make use of them; this will require some purging!

3. Be very careful about accumulating any more possessions, because they will just take more of my time for maintenance, and then before I know it, more for sorting and purging.

The new year is a gift of hope. We commemorate the Circumcision of Christ today, which reminds us of God's covenant with us--and there is no greater Hope! We can be assured that God will be with us, full of grace for every moment and every day we are given. It's true, we can't get it beforehand, but we can surely anticipate it.

This poem expressing the confusing natures of time and humankind is also a gift for today.

New Year's
by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

On other days we misinterpret time,
Pretending that we live the present moment.
But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
This tiny fissure where the future drips

Into the past, this fly-speck we call now
Be our true habitat? The present is
The leaky palm of water that we skim
From the swift, silent river slipping by.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along--to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.