A Traveler’s Rambles

Traveling doesn’t change you. I propose that the cliché – “you’ll never be the same after traveling” – is only partly true. Partly true because sure, traveling helps you realize that there’s more to the world than the home/culture you inhabit. But only partly true, because traveling doesn’t make you a different person than you already are.

If you’re inclined toward moodiness and introspection, being on the other side of the world won’t suddenly cure you. If you like to be in control, the unpredictability of travel will only serve to irritate you more.

Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling, and I’m the first to encourage others to do more of it. But traveling sometimes seems only to exacerbate one’s existing sin patterns. Envy, discontent, lack of self-control, selfishness – they’re all there. “Location, location, location,” doesn’t apply to us, as if the human heart was a piece of real estate.

But, on the other hand, I wonder if the routine of work/home/church life doesn’t change us more than we realize. Take a look around you. Work: your boss continues to micromanage your daily tasks. Family: your brother won’t clean up after himself. Church: yet again, she says the wrong thing. She’s only trying to help, but instead, she just makes you feel worse. They’re a whole bunch of messed up, broken sinners who require more grace than we have to give, and who give us more grace than we deserve.

Handsome strangers met at the sidewalk cafe don’t require much patience and longsuffering, especially if you’ll never see them again. It’s the people you bump up against continually, daily, weekly, who require something more from you. And in the process, perhaps it is we who are the most changed. Wives, husbands, children, church family, coworkers: vessels of ordinary grace.

House of Terror

House of Terror

In my travels I visited the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary. It once consecutively housed two deadly regimes: the Nazis and the Soviets. Each of these parties used this house as a torture chamber and killed many Hungarians inside of its walls. Walking through, hearing the interviews, reading the stories, looking into the jail cells, it’s so easy to feel the horror well up inside. How on earth could human beings do such things to others?

In my head I quickly contrast my easygoing, polite Canadian civilization with the barbarism displayed by Nazi Germany and the Communists. “We’re better than they were, and we’d never do such a thing.” It’s an easy step to pride and superiority. And for most of us, that’s where we’d stop. But fortunately for us, the gospel doesn’t leave us wallowing there. Jesus comes in and erases our neatly-constructed racial dividing lines.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Suddenly, the dividing lines appear in completely different places. We cannot stand across from them and think, “I would never do that.” Jesus looks straight at (into) you and says, “You already have.” In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn from The Gulag Archipelago, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.” The horror is no longer at some culture “out there,” but rather at the capacity for anger and hatred in my own heart. In your own heart.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not saying that this realization means we cannot stand up for justice and the oppressed. But it should keep us from overly simplifying the problem of evil. It’s only when we understand what we ourselves are capable of that we can truly stand for justice. The battle is fought in every human heart, and so pride and superiority must be destroyed, even as we continue to promote life and condemn injustice.

While walking through the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest, I happened upon a painting of three young women bathing. They were naked. I sat and looked at them for a while.

Advertising and pornography have done much to destroy and dehumanize women. It’s rare to meet a young woman who’s happy with her body. Of course, if we stop to think about it for any length of time, we should know that we are made in God’s image, and that He took on flesh and glorified it, thereby demonstrating the goodness of our humanness, of our flesh, of our bodies.

But the message we receive over and over is one of hatred. If the female body is so imperfect, and requires innumerable (photoshop) touch-ups, then obviously we should hate our bodies. The world seems to. The insidious message is subtle, unless you’re looking for it. But a quick glance through the women’s fashion page on Pinterest will tell all: nobody I know looks like that.

But what would it look like if we viewed our bodiliness with affection? I suspect it might look something like those nudes I saw at the MFA. I want to recommend that we all spend some time looking at Rembrandt nudes, but perhaps that’s not the solution. Somehow, the gospel message of grace and beauty in every body must be more ubiquitous than the world’s message of hate and disgust. But how?


A Fall Reading List

Of all the seasons, Fall is my favourite. I get to wear warm colours, see warm colours, smell warm colours. On the Pacific Northwest Coast, we are fortunate to get Indian Summers that deceive us and make us believe that winter and ten months of non-stop rain can’t really be that bad. As we gear up for Fall and spending more time in the great indoors, we thought we would share some literature with you, Dear Reader. These may be books that we loved, or hated, or both loved and hated at the same time. The books we chose captivated us in some way and begged some sort of response. We are giving you a brief reaction to our book choices and hoping that, even though none of us are salespeople, we will somehow sell you on one of these books. Here’s wishing you an excellent Autumn: bring on the rain, the apple cider, the blankets, and the books.

Jason’s Pick: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I read this book four years ago, and I can still picture where I was when I read it. It was the week of “American” Thanksgiving, and my wife and newborn daughter had left me (temporarily) for the Deep South. Cloud Atlas was the final book on the reading list for my first M.A. class, and I had to have it finished by Wednesday at 3:45. So, I read the novel in a rocking chair by our gas fireplace, periodically hitting its “OFF/ON” switch with an outstretched toe as the heat became uncomfortable (or, conversely, as I felt the need for its warm glow).

What does this memory have to do with the book? Absolutely nothing. Except that it bears witness to just how captivated I was by this book. Though I love to read, I am also impatient and easily distracted. It takes me far too long to read essays, let alone books, and I generally have to exercise a great deal of self-control to actually finish the books that I start.

That may not sound like strong praise, but it is. Cloud Atlas is a captivating novel that somehow interweaves six different stories from six different eras into a beautiful and entertaining reflection on our modern lives and loves. It dabbles in different genres (travel journal, letters, pulp fiction, and science fiction) and yet focuses on individual human beings, drawing out their humanity, for good and for ill. If you’re looking for a thoughtfully entertaining read, this book would be the first thing I’d place in your hands. You just might be spellbound, too.

Becky’s Pick: Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

Set in World War II Holland, this story chronicles ordinary life in the face of extraordinary evil. It’s a melody of simple tragedy that demonstrates the inevitability of death and how humanity has no idea how to react to the reality of death, especially when grieving has to take place in secret silence. In this book, I found Keilson to be a connoisseur of dialogue in which a simple, “could you please pass the coffee” is equivalent to “Where is the hope in this situation, really?” Keilson’s book is not so much an intellectual stimulator as much as an emotional one. It shows how destructive and penetrating evil is, and the dehumanizing effect it has on the human psyche.

Faith’s Pick: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake was recommended by a professor in a first year English class. She thought that students from immigrant families would find it particularly meaningful, but I think its meaning is much larger than cross-cultural misunderstandings. As the inside back cover states, “Lahiri speaks with universal eloquence to everyone who ever felt like a foreigner.” The son in the book, Gogol, can “fit” into multiple communities, yet is not so sure where he does fit. In the end, he accepts that he will never fully belong anywhere. Lahiri writes about relationships and the lack of fulfillment that they bring. This makes her writing sad. It also makes it comforting. It is good to be reminded that loneliness is part of what it means to be human in this world. The Namesake highlights that none of our relationships will overcome this loneliness. No one—not parent, spouse, child, friend, or sibling—will ever understand us, and to desire that understanding will only ever make us disappointed, and discontent with the ones from whom we wish perfect empathy.

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.