Confessions of a Closet Gnostic

I stand in front of the crowd and dance on my fingertips. A toddler with blonde pig-tails and glasses twirls and teeters in front of me. I get distracted and play a flat note. This is my dancing: playing music on my fingertips that others can dance to with their feet. Together the toddler and I create an upside down dance.

Playing on my fingertips is hard. I tend to thump fingers hard against the neck of my violin. This muffles the sound. Playing on the very tippy-tip of my fingers makes a cleaner, purer, and more articulate sound. Each of my fingers has to curl like the neck of a swan in order for the tips to make contact with the string. Each of my fingers looks like a levy bridge moving up and down. Except for my pinky finger. That finger always collapses under pressure. Pinkies were never meant to be muscular, unless you play the violin. Musicians have odd physiologies. They tone muscles which would otherwise go unnoticed.

“In your spare time, like when you’re not taking notes in class, how about you consider stretching your webbing? If anyone asks you what you’re doing, tell them your violin teacher instructed you to stretch the webbing on your fingers.”

Odd as this next phrase will sound, I am someone who deals with an aversion to bodies. To consider stretching the webbing between my fingers sounded vulgar and unpleasant. I have convinced myself that I was born thousands of years too late. I should have been born in the sixties at the latest, but that is because I like beehive hairstyles. The implications that the sixties had on bodies, and consequently would have had on my psyche, would have been a terrible decade for me to be born into.

But I digress.

I would have made an excellent gnostic. I enjoyed music because it seemed disconnected from the body. It produced spiritual experiences for people. It elevated the soul. Music was unrelated to the body until I learned to play the violin and learned how stiff the body can get from five hours of orchestra rehearsals. Music was a language through which God and the soul could be communicated. Sadly, I had to use my body to do this. The gnostics apparently never played in the orchestra pit.

The Gnostics also apparently never attended worship services. The implications of worship mean that I have now to confess the uncomfortable reality of my body.

For the past year I have become visibly emotional during celebrations of the life of Christ—Christmas, Good Friday, the usual suspects. My emotions are not some swell within the heart or butterflies in the stomach. Tears fall from my eyes. My emotions display themselves in ways that are undeniably physical. I attended an Easter service which started with a selection from Handel’s Messiah. Over and over again I hear these words: The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. The introduction does well to set me up for an emotional morning. During the singing, I want to lift my arms. This makes me feel uncomfortable. My eyes get teary and I get a lump in my throat. Gross. I remain adamant that bodies are gross because I do not like the feeling of the lump in my throat. My discomfort increases as my eyes well up more. Crying in church draws the unwanted attention of prayer warriors. I can see the conversation:

“I noticed you were crying. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. “
“No, really. What’s the matter? People don’t just cry in church unless there is a reason.”
“I suppose I have a body. It does things that I don’t want it to do.”

I want to cry and I want to dance for no good reason. I have a body, and despite my gnostic tendencies, I am learning to love this body. I am coming to realize that my head, my heart, my thoughts, my emotions, are all lodged within this container, within these borders called a body. I cannot separate my soul from my body.

I want to cry because a couple thousand years ago well-intentioned people killed Christ and buried him because they did not like the way that he presented himself to them. I want to cry because I cannot differentiate myself from these people. Christ presents himself to me on terms that I do not like—physicality—and so I try to make physicality a bad thing. How often I kill Christ because I do not recognize him. How often it happens that the very thing which I fight is Christ revealing himself to me in a way that I don’t like because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Christ had a body. God could be touched, and in fact he encouraged his followers to be physical. He told them to greet each other with a kiss. He told them to wash each other’s feet. He told the proverbial doubting Thomas to place his hand in his side and to feel his wounds. Because of Christ, bodies are made holy.

On Easter Sunday, Christ came alive again, incarnate, fleshy, physical. He bore the battle wounds of his death. I thought that he lost the battle. Death usually punctuates the story in a giant, capitalized “THE END.” I did not know that death could mean winning. Christ won because one of the most natural and certain elements of the human experience—death—was made a laughing stock as death ultimately could not fulfill its purpose on Christ.

All I can do is love Christ and love his story, and I suppose this is why I want to dance and raise my arms and make my eyes look uncomely with tears. This body is broken but shall be raised incorruptible. We shall be changed.

Searching for Scent-Colors

Spring-time, Summer and Fall: days to behold a world
Antecedent to our knowing, where flowers think
Theirs concretely in scent-colors and beasts, the same
Age all over, pursue dumb horizontal lives
On one level of conduct and so cannot be
Secretary to man’s plot to become divine.

….

Winter, though, has the right tense for a look indoors
At ourselves, and with First Names to sit face-to-face,
Time for reading of thoughts, time for the trying-out
Of new metres and new recipes, proper time
To reflect on events noted in warmer months
Till, transmuted, they take part in a human tale.

– W. H. Auden, “In Due Season” (stanzas 1 and 3)

We really have no excuse for taking a summer vacation right now. Our renewed blogging efforts began less than two months ago, and they have not been as regular as we hoped. (For this lack, please blame me, since I have only penned one post since our re-inaugural beginning in late June.)

But is it fair for us to argue with the season? As Auden notes in the passages above, summer is a time for pursuing joys that can be felt and smelt. Winter will come soon enough, with its shorter days and damp weather. We’ll return in September, well before the transition into autumn colours and warm sweaters.

You may still hear from us occasionally this month; if we have something to share, rest assured you will hear about it. But for now, permit us a temporary leave of absence as we forge plans for the fall. We’re pretty confident that this silence will prove fruitful.

Thanks to all who have read and allowed themselves to be provoked into discussion by our short essays. Such conversations are more valuable to us than high numbers of page views. They are the successes that keep us writing.

‘Til later …

Blogging Towards More Charitable Housekeeping

Once upon a time, a guest lecturer spoke to a class I was in about why he likes being a history professor. The person said in the course of the talk that he does not like to tell people that he is a historian or a professor. He simply says that he is a teacher. He and the teacher of my class went on to discuss how much they dislike it when people refer to their academic credentials, or use the title “Dr.” despite knowing nothing about medicine. Their conversation showed such confidence. I thought that it was the coolest thing ever.

Since then, I have wanted to be that way, and have wanted to never try to make myself sound special. I wanted, and want, to be confident within myself, to not have to talk myself up or make myself sound like someone whom others should be impressed by. This is a worthy goal. It is perhaps, easier said than done. It is also perhaps, in my case, just one more form of pride.

When I agreed to spend two months this summer housekeeping at a remote Pacific-coastal fishing lodge, there were all sorts of things I worried about. However, it never occurred to me that people might not think me special, and, for my first week, I did not notice anything amiss. I wore plaid flannel shirts and torn jeans and smirked to myself as I cleared plates and listened to guests converse about politics and religion. I was “invisible,” and I loved it. I felt strong when I cleaned, and I loved all of the housekeeper-ish things that I was learning. I wanted everyone who stayed to be comfortable and happy, and I thought that I was making progress in learning how to do so.

My composure was briefly disrupted by a guest’s tipping me, calling me dear, and thanking me for my work, but I managed a thank-you and accepted the money. I was too busy glorying in my maid and kitchen-slave identity to notice much, and my employer told me I would get used to it, eventually. Everything, otherwise, was going somewhat well.

My enthusiasm did not last long. It ended yesterday, when a fellow housekeeper asked me what grade I am in. The innocent question first made me laugh, then horrified me. The snarky self-assurance that had so far sustained me fell away into a cavern of self-conscious concern. Did everyone think me in high school? I suddenly felt tired of keeping my mouth shut and tired of not being seen. Far from the wilderness wonder-woman of my imagination, I realized that I am merely “the help”—some girl, whose name guests may or may not bother to remember, who, when she asks about your day, tries to make you tea, or worries that you might be cold, is only doing so because she wants your American money, held out in a patronizing, “thank-you.”

I wanted to be invisible, and now I really am. My guests see what I look like, but they see only a girl who may or may not be good at what she is doing. They do not see the girl that is me, the girl who is an adult, with feelings, thoughts, hopes and aspirations.

I sulked all yesterday afternoon. I might cry tonight. It has come as a surprise to me just how much I miss all of the social affirmation that I thought was not accorded to your average suburban student-barista. I thought that I was past all that, past needing to be affirmed, past informing people of the things that I consider to be my achievements, past attempting to loom ever larger in my own imagination. But I am not past it, and right now, I am stuck with this job, stuck in this identity.

I feel horrible right now because I feel ridiculous. I assumed that I was visible, and now I realize that I never was. I will, however, get over it. In the process, I hope that I get over, even just a tiny bit, myself (something that blogging about my feelings is certainly sure to help with).

Except, blogging about feelings can be healthy, because, this evening as I wrote, it slowly dawned on me that, when the scales, as it were, fell from my eyes, I did not then see clearly. I turned into a petulant princess, I saw that my guests did not recognize my value. In seeing so however, I did to them precisely what I had accused them of doing to me. I denied them both depth and humanity. By viewing myself as I imagined my guests to see me, more as “help” and less as “person,” I took away from them, in my imagination, the possibility of seeing me perceptively. I projected onto my guests an image of myself that they might-well hold, but that image was only ever my image, and it was entirely unfair to attribute it to my guests, all of whom have been kindly and polite. Perhaps if some did see me shallowly, they saw then correctly.

I have not failed if I feel hurt by lack of appreciation. God does not demand of me an inner core of heroic self-confidence. What he requires is very simple, and the best way to sum it up is with the short word “charity.”

N.B. For any concerned readers, I wrote this a while ago. I am currently well over my sulking fairly re-enthused about my work and thankful for those lovely and strange things known as “tips” which, at this rate, should see me through with coffee and book purchases ‘til Christmas at least.

Too Tragic for Real Life

A man on a bike slowly made his way along the dirt road. From the opposite direction, a column of eighty armored tanks crawled towards him like one giant, ornery caterpillar. As the two neared each other, the tanks uttered a pained moan as brakes were hastily applied and the entire procession ground to a halt. The hatch of the tank at the front of the column flung open, and the huge boyish grin of a young man named Eric De Vries emerged from the depths. “The war is over!” he shouted to the man on the bike. “It’s over!”

tank

The year was 1945; the war was World War II. They were Canadian tanks, steadily advancing across the Dutch countryside just east of Amsterdam, with Germans hastily retreating ahead of them.

The man on the bike was my grandfather. He went on to get married, have six children and many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and today he feeds ducks in his backyard overlooking a small lake in Western British Columbia, with a large local mountain putting a sizable dent in his horizon. It is the kind of view people pay for.

Eric De Vries, the man in the tank, lived for thirty more minutes before a crazed bazooka-wielding German reduced that tank to a ball of flames.

I sat in a coffee shop last week, browsing over a stack of war stories my grandpa had written down and asked me to edit. I waded through the broken, matter-of-fact English with pen in hand, marking up grammar and spelling, until I arrived at this story. The poor storytelling and broken English could not lessen the sudden impact of the tragedy. I set it down, overcome by the bizarre sadness of it all.

It is a dark twist, too tragic for real life. In what kind of world does a man fight a war for five years and taste victory for only thirty minutes before his life is snuffed out? What kind of God lets that happen?

Nevertheless, this is the world we find ourselves in. It is too tragic for real life. Some may read this story and ask, “Why?” and for those, perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps the darkness cannot be explained. Perhaps we’re not supposed to explain it.

It’s a strange poetry, this world. It’s bizarre, tragic in an almost comedic way, where the laughter is anything but light-hearted and more akin to insane hysterics. Often, all we are left with is questions without very many answers.

Is it all meaningless? Is this the conclusion we must content ourselves with?

There is something offensive to us about this story, something difficult to grapple with. It took me a while to put a finger on it, to actually recognize why it troubled me so much. This story appears, on one level, to be a story about a purposeless death. One man enjoys a half hour of peace before death comes calling; another lives a full life of peace, to die in his bed at a ripe old age. Right?

But when my grandpa biked away from that moment in 1945, it was not into a future of peace. He lived to fight one more day; he lived, in fact, to fight a few thousand more days.

You see, evil, the grim spectre that snuffed the life of Eric De Vries far too early for our liking, did not die the day Germany surrendered. It continued. And my grandpa continued to pick a fight with it. An insatiable hunger for justice drove him through his life even into his retirement years, when he channelled Christian refugees through a bureaucratic obstacle course into North America. He fought, and fought, and fought, and carried with him the memories of those whose fight was over. Now, the closing act to his own fight has begun, and he has passed me a stack of papers that tells the tale.

Who celebrated peace that day in 1945? It wasn’t my grandpa. The day marked the end of a battle, a fleeting episode, but the war continued. Men continue to do evil things, and good people die. Sin continues to tear us apart.

Who celebrated peace that day?

In Praise of Penmanship

I come to the realization that I teach English, not when I have encounters with simple past and past participles, but when I get to read student writing. I look at the stack of journals to be marked and avoid marking because it seems tedious. However, once I begin to read what my students have penned, it is usually a delight for me.

Sometimes what the students say is not as interesting as how they convey it.

One of my students forgot his journal, so at the end of the day he handed me the notebook in which he takes notes. Inside the notebook I found all manner of drawings of dolphins, horses, and stars. This student is one of the most engaged in the class—he offers feedback, participates in discussions, looks at me when I speak. When did I ever talk about dolphins? Never. I recall reading that some students process information better when they doodle. I assume this is the case for my dolphin-sketcher.

Another student is able to turn any kind of opinion writing into a chart, graph, or diagram. When I look at his writing, there is an overwhelming sense of movement on the page. Arrows, boxes, and circles assist his discussion. He always writes in italics. I am not quite sure how he manages to have all of his script at a perfect twenty-three degree angle.

Other students can’t write on a line. Some use circles to dot their i’s. Some have never used a comma, and some abuse the comma like it’s a drug. Some write incredibly small characters, causing me to beg for a magnifying glass as a gift. Others use letters so big that a one-page writing assignment can have only three sentences on it.

journal

I like encounters with the written word, the really, genuinely written word. I get a better sense of a person and of their personality. Typing is great; I like hearing the click-click-click of a machine. There is something melodic about it. But somehow handwriting is magical. It creates a different kind of connection between the reader and the writer. Handwriting conveys another level of understanding to the reader.

A colleague informed me a few weeks ago that cursive handwriting will no longer be taught in schools. In 2011, several U.S. states erased cursive in favour of more practical typing classes. The trend has spread and reached the province where I live. Almost everyone was happy to see this change, except for a few nonsensical romantics like myself. When people do not yet know their own artistic voice, having an artistic way to communicate—with cursive script, for example—assists in the building of an artist.

declaration

Individual variation creates artistic distinctiveness. When I think of cursive writing, the first image that comes to mind is the original document of the Declaration of Independence. I could not quote the information contained within the Declaration, but the image is plastered on my mind like wartime propaganda posters on a wall. When I look at the writing in the Declaration, I can see the excitement without even reading the words. The style of writing itself communicates independence. Independence was celebrated three hundred years ago with plume and paper, and now it seems time to move on to something else. Perhaps this is why people are saying good-bye to handwriting. In the words of an Italian art-history student I once knew: “Independence is no more trendy.” Now that artistic style is being erased, let’s hope we don’t all start to say the same things as well.

My students don’t have to write in cursive, but they do have to write with their own hand. Perhaps more than an assertion of independence, it’s an acknowledgement of the incarnate self. The written word is the extension of a hand—a hand to help, support, to extend grace.

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. – 2 Thess 3:17-18