Post 46

The News at 11: Reflections on a Good Number

These days I’m working on a post about schedules and daily plans. It’s a terrible choice of topic because I have a love-hate relationship with them. I revisit the issue a lot, because I feel like there must be a way to get everything done in a day, or at least, a way to get all the right things done. There must! If I could only find the right system . . .

So that post is currently a total mess of starting over and starting over. It’s also threatening to be very long, unless I can figure out a way to segment it. So I’ve decided to leave it aside for today so that I could write you and tell you that it’s 11.

(“What’s 11?”)

(“My favorite number!”)

(“Your favorite number is 11?”)

(“Yes, isn’t that exciting news?”)

(“You phoned me to say that your favorite number is 11?”)

(“Yes! Aren’t you glad?”)

(“What time is it anyway?”)

(“I don’t know. Maybe 11?”)

(“Well don’t you think you should be getting to sleep?”)

(“I suppose, but don’t you want to hear why it’s my favorite?”)

I was pondering it yesterday, and I’m pretty sure it’s number 11, though I must admit, I do like 12 a lot too.

The thing about the number 11 is that it’s aesthetically pleasing. Consider those two matching columns standing so proudly side by side. It has two lines of symmetry, so you can cut it in half horizontally or vertically. You could even turn it upside-down and it would not lose much of its charm. (This all assumes, of course, that you’re not doing it the European way with the long awning-like embellishment on the front.)

Number 8 isn’t as symmetrical, because the top half is smaller than the bottom half. Zero is good in this way, but I don’t really feel like zero is a proper answer to the favorite number question.

The number 11 also has the advantage that if you were to find another 11 and lay it horizontally, you could build a square. And if you’re feeling in an architectural mood, you can just place an arch on top, and then you’ve got columns plus arches, an unrivalled combination. That’s why 11 is better than just 1 all by itself.

And it’s white too, which is nice and calm. The digit 1 is white, so 11 is white next to white. White columns and an arch. Classic!

Do you see your numbers or letters in colour? If you do, then you’re a synesthete. The internet says that about 4% of people are synesthetes, but they’re not certain. I’m sure it’s more common than that – but nobody knows the real numbers because people don’t think of talking about it. If you have it, you think it’s normal and that everyone has it (that’s what I thought) or else you don’t have it, and it doesn’t occur to you that anybody would experience such a thing. And in the end, it doesn’t matter at all; it’s just one of those quirky things like wiggling your ears or folding your tongue lengthwise.

The most common version of synesthesia is the one where your brain assigns colours to different letters or numbers (grapheme-colour synesthesia). 578 seems blue red orange to me. I found it amusing to read how people with synesthesia can get really messed up if you give them math questions with the colours all ‘wrong.’ In other words, the heartless researchers would find out what colour associations that particular synesthete had, and then they’d switch the numbers up. So, for example, they’d ask you 4 – 3, but instead of using the right colours (green subtract yellow), they’d reverse them or do something like that. It disoriented the synesthetes, obviously.

Turning to the literary aspects, well, I must start with the fact that the number 11 almost looks like the very useful (I almost wrote ‘usefull’) double L. Watch this: The do11s a11 fe11 down the waterfa11. Pretty neat, hey?

And more importantly, the number 11 is one of the few number words that actually has three syllables. It’s quite beautiful. Listen to how smooth this is: eleven. And it looks good too. It looks and sounds like a combination of ‘elegant’ and ‘heaven.’ Hard to beat that, I must say.

Now I know there are all the three-syllable number words like ‘eighty-six.’ But really – most of them sound like old trucks pulling rusty trailers. And ‘forty-two’ – well, words like that bring the English language into disrepute; it’s very hard to gracefully end a word with the sound oo. Will you wear a muumuu when you come to my igloo for some tofu? How do you do? Yikes. It’s a good thing we don’t end words with the letter u.

(By the way, do you say twenty or ‘twenny’? I recently spoke to someone who emigrated here from Europe and he was surprised to hear Canadians using an Americanized pronunciation of twenty.)

And turning to morality, eleven is even a good number. Adding, subtracting and even multiplying are a breeze. No need to whip out the abacus with this number! It’s almost as cooperative as the number 1, but more interesting. When the School House Rock people did a teaching song about number 11, guess what they called it? “Good Eleven.”

But in terms of mathematics, I know that this is where number 12 really shines. Such a tiny number, and yet so many factors!

Admittedly, 11 is a prime number, but so is 7, and everybody knows how holy 7 is (7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 days of the week, 7 corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, 7 sacraments).

But on the topic of holiness, you must admit that 11 is no slouch, being the number of good apostles, the Good Eleven, so to speak.

(“That’s it?”)

(“I think so.”)

(“Those are all your reasons?”)

(“Mm-hmm. That’s a11.”)

Post 45

Flubbed Lines: A Prayer About the Letter F

Dear Jesus,

So it didn’t work out.
As you know.

Why not?
How come?
How come you didn’t make it work out?

You could have made it work out.
You could have.

Or you could have prevented me from caring in the first place.
But I did care and I did try.
And then it didn’t work out.
After I tried and everything.

That’s disappointing.

I don’t like being disappointed.

It feels like suffering.
It is suffering.
I don’t like suffering.
It’s no fun.

And it’s a bit humiliating too.
It would have been better to not have cared in the first place, feels like.

The story-line isn’t linear; that’s the problem.
I do A, then B, and C is supposed to come next.
Instead I get an F.
An F!

F is for Failure.
You know I don’t like getting an F.
I don’t like getting an F.
You know.

I do A, then B, and C is supposed to come next.
Instead I get a 47.
47!
It’s not even a letter.

Lord, why do you do that?
Why do you write the story like that?
What kind of lines are these?
Why didn’t it just go the way it was supposed to go?

It would have been so good!
That’s what I wanted.
I thought that’s what you wanted too.

Or if it wasn’t supposed to turn out, then why did I care in the first place?
Why try?

Now what?

Why is there all this waiting all the time anyway, to figure out what we’re supposed to do?
Why is there all this waiting all the time anyway, to figure out how it’s all going to turn out?

Now what?

What is it that you want of me?

Trust?
Is that what this is all about?

JESUS, I do trust in you.
Let me trust in you more.
Jesus, I trust in you.
Let me trust in you more.

You know how the story ends.
You know how it goes.
You know what you’re doing.

Let me play the role of the fool.
Cast me as the Fool, if that’s the role you have for me.
Like an actor who just wants to be in the play, I’ll take any part.
Give me any part, as long as it’s one you’ve written.

I’ll take it.
I’ll take it.
Even if it starts with F.

Amen.

Post 44

Call Me When it's Over: Reflections on Book Clubs

A book is like any other work of art. The point is to have a worthy idea (in this case, a story) and execute it well. If you start with a story not worth telling, then no matter how skillfully you present it, it’s still not going to be worth people’s time. But if you have a worthy story, then at least you’re off to a proper start. Hopefully you’ll be able to do it justice.

So, obviously, some art is better than other art.

But not everyone is equally adept at telling the difference between good art and bad art.

Yet having said this, the arts need to be open to everyone, and should not be seen as a pursuit reserved for a select few. Art gets more and more warped and out of touch with what the average person finds beautiful when it has fewer regular folk participating in it or when it has some unnatural method of being kept alive. When the government or the multi-millionaire is financing the art, it rarely represents what the average person likes, and it degenerates into what is ugly and unappealing.

In the realm of the visual arts, for example, the average person who signs up for a painting class wants to do a pretty picture of flowers or a country scene. Mrs. So-and-so doesn’t sign up for splatter-painting or whatever it’s called. She figures that you don’t need to pay money to learn how to make a mess.

It’s natural for people to want to create things that are beautiful. It’s only when they get ‘advanced’ that artists want to create things that are ugly.

When children draw, for instance, they are doing their best to represent reality, or an idealized reality. Andrew Pudewa said girls draw nouns and boys draw verbs. The girls therefore draw horses or unicorns while the boys draw speeding cars and explosions. Their tools and ability might be amateur, but their aims are pure and distinct: they aim at accuracy, not distortion.

I once saw a group of children each take their turn at standing at the front of a classroom, holding their picture, having to answer the question, “What would you like to improve about your drawing?” And each of them, with one exception, said that he or she wanted to learn how to make something look more realistic. They wanted to make a more believable tree, bird or person. No child said he wanted to learn how to make something look more abstract.

As for the exception, well, that was funny. This girl, who was maybe about 5 years old, held up a picture of a horse and some people walking along the bottom edge of the page.

Teacher: “What do you like about your drawing?”
Girl: “Everything.”
Teacher: “And what would you like to improve?”
Girl: “Nothing.”

So I’m not saying art is only to be done by those who are ‘good enough.’ Certainly, more people should be actively engaged in art. Producing art is enjoyable and a mode of human expression. It’s too bad that our idea of experts prevents the average person from enjoying it to the full.

Nevertheless, not all art is equally good, and art can be evaluated for its quality. Moreover, I will even say that art intended for public consumption should be evaluated, because life is short, and you can only read a finite number of books in your life, and see a finite number of movies. It’s good to know what’s better. Hopefully, you’ll find a reliable source of information. But even more important than the time factor is the fact that art changes you; good art changes you for the better and bad art changes you for the worse. Sure, the change can be really small, but it’s there. And the human brain (or soul) doesn’t have a ‘delete’ button; the bad stuff lingers a lot longer than it should.

Such are my thoughts.

Too many thoughts, by book-club standards.

The atmosphere of a book club is supposed to be open and friendly and light-hearted. You’re with a group of women and presumably one of these women has suggested reading the book in question. She’s hoping that the other ladies will enjoy it. It’s supposed to be a pleasant night out, and the host has shined up her home and set out tea cups and wine glasses (there’s nothing like expecting a bunch of ladies to motivate a woman to shine the sink and wipe the doorknobs). Everyone is supposed to get along and socialize, have some dignified conversation, drink some wine, eat some goodies, laugh and go home, feeling enlightened and literate.

I know the drill.

But . . .

But what if I hate the book? What if I hate the book and I can’t stand the author’s agenda (all authors have one, for better or worse) and what if I can’t stand how he’s done it and what if I hate the way nobody can see or seems to mind what he’s trying to do and what if I can’t stand how everyone thinks this book is so edgy and clever when really it’s so lame?

What exactly am I supposed to do? “Excuse me, Miss Hostess, do you happen to have a pillow that I could borrow? Oh great, thanks. I’ll just go and scream in it until you ladies are done praising the book.”

Okay, all done!

Could you please pass the dip?

I know, I know. There’s a middle ground here somewhere, a way to do this well. In fact, I am sure there’s a saintly way to do it.

Hey, maybe I could bring St. Josemaria Escriva along to such a meeting. He’ll endear me to my liberal-minded friends when he say this:

Books. Don’t buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful.

How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of trash.

The Way, No. 339

They’ll never forget us. They’ll call him the book-burning fanatic. “Did you hear him? He called this book ‘trash!’ Doesn’t he realize it’s a New York Times Best-Seller?”

And if you’re thinking that things would be better if I were the one choosing the book, I must say that there’s a wrinkle with that, which goes something like this:

Unsuspecting Friend: “I don’t know. I wasn’t really that excited about it.”
Me (looking astonished): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well, I just don’t know about this G.K. Chesterton fellow.”
Me (looking alarmed): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “I’m just not sure if he really works for me.”
Me (looking aghast): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Maybe we could try someone else.”
Me (looking appalled):“What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “You know, someone a bit more . . .”
Me (looking green): “What?!”

And I can’t say that I enjoy that ‘noble’ book club called a Bible study group very much either. Now of course the bible is great and encyclicals (also the basis for some study groups) are really rich and amazing, but I don’t like looking at them with friends. I always get squirmy. “Are we done yet?” I want to keep the people, but replace that workbook and all its dry questions with a plate of nachos.

Conferences are tricky too, even if they feature, in theory, good Christian speakers talking about good Christian things. Like my friends, I’ve paid the registration fee, and I’m full of expectation. But by the time the presentation is done, and the audience is clapping, they’re satisfied and I’ve got a litany of criticisms. I try to act normal as we walk out of the conference room – you know, trying not to let my eyes bulge out too much. My friends are saying how much they’ve enjoyed it while I’m coaching myself: “Don’t speak, don’t speak, don’t speak.” But inevitably, someone turns to me and says, “Wasn’t that great? What did you think?”

The internal circuits start firing madly, but still, I hang on, valiantly. To speak or not to speak? Dare I start? What if I can’t stop? Where do I start?

And lest you think I have absolutely no self control, I’ll tell you that there have been times when I have deflected the question.

“Hey, look, an airplane!”

But then there are the other times. There are the times when I provide ‘the list.’

Unsuspecting Friend: “But why didn’t you like it?”
Me: “Well, if you must know, here’s an itemized breakdown of all of my issues with the presentation.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Oh.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “That’s a lot of issues.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well I thought it was a nice presentation.”
Me: “Well, you’re wrong.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Wrong. You. You’re wrong. It was no good.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “So you’re saying that you know better than me as to what’s a good presentation?”
Me: “Yup.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “Alrighty.”

Okay, so it doesn’t happen exactly like this. I don’t say, “You’re wrong,” but you could say that there’s a very strong suggestion that I might be thinking that.

So the truth is that I really think twice about attending conferences, and often I don’t go.

Mind you, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes I really, really like a presentation or a performance or author or work. I get really excited, and I will provide anyone within a radius of 200 meters a copy of my itemized breakdown of everything that I loved about it.

WiseOne wondered aloud whether it’s a case of always holding an extreme opinion.

WiseOne: So you either really love something or you really dislike it?
Me: Well, not exactly. I could probably sometimes give a score of 7 out of 10.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Sometimes.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Well, not often, but it does happen. Or sometimes I might give it like a 4.
WiseOne: How about a 5?
Me: What?
WiseOne: A 5. Do you ever give a 5?
Me: A 5?
WiseOne: Yes, like right in the middle.
Me: How do you give a 5? Who gives a 5? You mean, like you’re not sure?
WiseOne: Yes, or like you don’t care.
Me: No! Of course not! I never give a 5!
WiseOne: Yes, that’s what I thought.
Me: But sometimes I could give a 4. That’s kind of like a 5. Does that count?
WiseOne: And you probably would give a 6.
Me: Yes, maybe a 6.
WiseOne: But never a 5.
Me: Well, no. What really is a 5?
WiseOne: 5 is medium, right in the middle.
Me: Medium?

 

Yeah.

So this is how things stand.

Some would say that such a person is opinionated. The thing about being opinionated is that it means you care about things. If you don’t care about an issue, you won’t have a strong opinion about it. The more things you care about, the more opinions you’ll have. I care about issues related to morality and about literary things and visual things. Crayons, for instance, have issues which are visual and literary and arguably moral, and so I have opinions about them.

But on other things, such as fractions or furnace filters, I’ll be fairly neutral. I bet if you gave me a questionnaire about such things, I could probably give out a lot of 5s. A lot. It would be like this:

5
5
5
5

Yeah, that would be me.

5
5
5

I’d be just so middle-of-the-road, so dispassionate and level that you’d think 5 is my favorite number. No, let me correct myself: you’d think I didn’t even have a favorite number, that’s how neutral I’d be.

Mind you, if the furnace filter is dirty, this would become a visual issue, and I’ll have an opinion. And arguably, this becomes a moral issue, because is it not the case that it is our duty to regularly replace the filter? Do people have a moral obligation to maintain their household appliances? Is this not an aspect of fully appreciating the gift of home? Yet wouldn’t proper maintenance of all our household appliances to the standards set out in the operating manuals involve the neglect of every other aspect of our life? And certainly people are not to become the servants of their possessions?

(Imagine if we only kept the number of appliances we were able to properly maintain! What if appliances had policemen who would come and confiscate the appliances that you don’t take care of? In that case, we probably would neglect our other responsibilities just to save our things.)

But anyway, where was I?

Right – I was thinking about the role of an opinionated person in a book club.

I think I know.

The opinionated person should be the designated driver.

I’ll drop you off.

Have a nice time.

Enjoy the wine and tell them I said hello.

Post 43

Zoom Zoom Beep Beep:
Reflections on a Restless Culture

Modern life is characterized by a lot of rushing around.

The car and the transport systems of the big city have made it possible for us to move around very easily, and so we do. It’s normal for us to cover many kilometers getting to work, to school and to essential places like the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The layout of most North American cities presupposes the use of a car, and I once saw an interesting documentary which said that the automotive industry played a pivotal role in the typical layout of the modern city; sprawling suburbs are good for the industry.

And when we’re not commuting to school or the workplace, we’re still on the move. We have evening and weekend activities which are also car-dependent and we drive here, there and everywhere.

This is normal life in a big city. We live a mobile sort of existence, and we fill it with wireless technology that will move with us, giving us the sensation of connection when we don’t have physical nearness. And we have drive-through food, drive-through coffee and drive-through banking. The home isn’t much more than a place to sleep, store our possessions (I sure like the photo book Material World: A Global Family Portrait) and recharge our phone.

And when this normal cycle of go-go-go is broken by the long-awaited vacation days, it’s rather amusing that one of the first things that we do is hop on a plane and go!

If they had feelings, surely our homes would feel quite rejected!

Leaving so soon?

Remember when you used to commonly see a little decorative plaque on the wall or a cross-stitch design that spelled out the words, “Home Sweet Home”? The sentiment seems almost out-of-date now, and you’ll rarely see it for sale in the stores anymore. Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home,” and she meant it as a compliment, but nowadays we seem to have mixed views about home – it’s not praised as uniformly anymore, as you can see from the attitude towards women who are ‘stay-at-home mothers.’ Staying at home – whether it’s what you do instead of working downtown, or what you’re planning to do over the long weekend – always sounds like a lesser choice; it’s safe, it’s boring, it’s non-threatening and narrow. The ‘real world,’ by contrast, is ‘out there.’ In a home (goes the thinking) you’re insulated from the difficult and exciting stuff.

So now instead of “Home Sweet Home” you’ll see a photo on the wall from that trip a few years ago, back when we used to get our photos printed out. (Nowadays we whip out our phone, “Just hang on; I have it right here – scroll, scroll – I thought it was – scroll, scroll – oh, here it is – it’s a video actually – we went zip lining – just watch this.”)

And even though not everyone travels, it’s usually a case of not being able to, instead of not wanting to. People admire the lifestyles of the famous, who are frequently ‘on tour’ promoting their music or their books. If you gave out free airplane tickets, then truly the suburbs would be entirely deserted during the summer. These days I get recorded phone messages telling me I’ve been “randomly selected” by Air Canada or West Jet for travel. It’s an attention-getting message because people like the idea of being able to travel more frequently or more affordably. Air Miles and similar programs are popular for the same reason. A woman complained that whenever there’s an Air Miles promotion, her husband buys more cereal than they can eat just so he can collect the points.

You often hear people say they wish they could travel the way others do – they mention the double-income-household-sister-in-law who goes so many places so often that you can’t keep track, let alone keep up. I understand the sentiment; how can you blame them? When everyone and their dog is going everywhere, and when talking about big trips is like talking about the weather (“How was your summer? Did you go anywhere?” “How was your winter? Did you get away?”), it’s no fun to feel like you’re the only one who didn’t go. Staying home is out of fashion, and has been for some time, if the words of Chesterton are any indication: “It is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

And so the “typically modern” person considers different destinations, and the perception is that certain types of people go to certain places. One of the biggest ways that advertisers sell things is to convince you that you are ‘expressing yourself‘ by purchasing their product. There’s something similar with a person’s ‘travel resume,’ so to speak – if you go to beaches or Vegas, you’re fun and spontaneous. If you go trekking in some mountain-range somewhere, you’re fun and fit. If you go to Europe, you’re cultured. If you go to Chile or India, you’re cultured and open-minded.

Indeed, travelling to a different part of the world can be taken almost as an intellectual and even spiritual accomplishment, even though the main components are a passive plane ride and the ability to choose good footwear. To what extent are you really broadening your intellectual horizons? It’s not as though there’s really such a place as the Land of New Ideas and New Thought, to be contrasted with home, the land of Stagnant Thought and Old Ideas.

The connection between physical movement and intellectual or spiritual movement is misunderstood – the one is given credit for causing the other.

I’m not saying that new ideas don’t come to you when you travel – of course they do – but they’ll also come to you when you don’t. Arguably, they’ll come to especially when you don’t. And one person who has argued this is Chesterton.

Travel is not ‘better‘ than staying home, in the sense of being a higher good, or a superior choice, even though our modern language really suggests this (someone who is ‘going places’ is someone with a future and someone who is ‘a mover and shaker’ is someone who accomplishes a lot and influences people and events, but someone who is ‘provincial’ or ‘tied down’ is someone to be laughed at or pitied).

As a matter of fact, Chesterton says that travel is, in many ways, an inferior choice and less of an experience! It’s an interesting perspective.

For starters, he reminds us that so much of this movement is an escape from reality, not a greater appreciation of reality. Even when a trip involves physical hardship, it’s still usually a deliberately-chosen diversion, a running-away from, and not just a running towards.

Sure, travelling means a different daily routine, and more life hours spent figuring out where to eat and sleep and get your clothes clean, but on the other hand, you will be left untroubled in important ways.

You’ll be untroubled by anybody who wants to really challenge you on things that matter. You’ll be untroubled, for the most part, by serious conversations about your life and your choices. Nobody will care enough about you to raise an eyebrow or question you. Your superficial interactions will be brief and fairly pleasant. You’ll play the part of a paying customer and you’ll be treated like one. It’s not a difficult script to follow.

If you want to be really challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, stay at home! If you want to have some genuinely alarming and get-under-your-skin conversations, stay at home! Look to your left and look to your right – there are a lot of people all around you who are ready to clash with you about all manner of things. Home is where you’ll be dealing with people in a more in-depth way. And if it’s approached properly, these interactions will help you figure out how to be a better person. Here’s St. Josemaria Escriva talking about people not being marshmallows:

You clash with the character of one person or another. It has to be that way – you are not a dollar bill to be liked by everyone.
Besides, without those clashes which arise in dealing with your neighbors, how could you ever lose the sharp corners, the edges – imperfections and defects of your character – and acquire the order, the smoothness and the firm mildness of charity, of perfection?
If your character and that of those around you were soft and sweet like marshmallows, you would never become a saint.

– The Way, No. 20

In that quotation, St. Josemaria Escriva refers to our neighbours. The key thing about the neighbours is that we don’t choose them: “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour,” says Chesterton (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”). He praises the fact that scripture doesn’t talk about humanity in general (who is that?) but about the person who is right in our face – flesh and blood – our neighbour:

That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

The vibrant unpredictability of the actual people in our lives is what makes regular home life as exciting and interesting as it is. We can’t control it. We don’t get to choose who is in our family or our neighbourhood and we don’t get to choose how they treat us.

Everyone is a wild card.

We think it’s the others who are odd. Meanwhile, they think they’re normal and we’re the odd ones. It’s quite funny when you think about it.

A good priest once said to me that if we were to visit an institution for the mentally ill, we wouldn’t be surprised to see that everyone was acting very strangely. He said that the truth is, there’s something wrong with everybody, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see how everyone acts.

Life’s test is: how well can you deal with the real people who are in your space?

The best way a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And as you can see from this quotation, Chesterton puts family members in the same category as neighbours in this way; in both cases, we don’t have any say about who gets ‘invited.’ Every family is a very inadvisable mix of personality types, the kind that no event planner would recommend. “What? And you’re going to bring all those people together during Christmas? With liquor? What are you thinking?”

And every time a child marries, the combination becomes even more unruly – that family of three daughters changes enormously when each daughter finds a spouse. And as if that’s not interesting enough, these new spouses bring with them siblings and parents and hairless cats. It gets less and less predictable with each addition. When children are born, the complexities are magnified again.

But Chesterton says this is the whole point. Differences of personality is what humanity is about, and the best place to find ourselves thrown together with a cross-section of humanity is by being in a family. He’s right. When you consider the members of your family, are they the type of people that you would have sought out as companions? And are you the type of person that they would have selected? I’ve spoken to so many parents who are just flabbergasted at the differences in personality between their children, no matter how many they have.

Chesterton says you can’t defend the institution of the family by saying it’s so ‘nice’ or so ‘congenial.’ The dictionary says congenial means 1) having the same tastes, habits or temperament, sympathetic, 2) suited to ones needs, agreeable. No! He defends it as being a group where you specifically won’t find everything suited to your tastes and needs. It’s something like the St. Josemaria Escriva quotation about people not being soft and sweet like marshmallows. But the good in all of this is that you can defend the institution of the family because it’s all about getting to know and love people for who they really are, not who you wish they were:

Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

It’s about loving people without having ‘good reasons’ to love them. It’s about loving people even when they don’t ‘deserve’ it, or when they don’t satisfy your needs. Somewhere else he said that when you admire someone, you have reasons to admire them, but when you love them, you love without reasons.

And he goes on, providing the following hypothetical, which amused me:

It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.

That quotation is so accurate – you can picture the chaos of different interests and levels of interest and disinterest. Everyone is thrown together and the mix is so unpredictable – and that’s before anybody really says much of anything (a look can be worth a thousand words). But if you want to stir the pot, you know which conversational topics will do it! Perhaps nowadays you don’t dare go there. Add to this the carelessness with which family members sometimes treat each other, and Chesterton is so right to say a family is “like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

In a family, the people are not just a blur of faces that you see from the outside. You can’t fast-forward past all these people! They’re sitting across the table from you today, and they’ll probably be there tomorrow too! And so you realize the complexities and mystery of people. You are reminded daily that people are so immensely complicated, because even the people that you thought you knew so well are continually shocking or surprising you and catching you off-guard. Seeing real people up close is a valuable education, and this makes your world and your life bigger and richer:

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

He likes small towns for the same reason:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

(And because ‘diversity’ is a loaded word these days, we should say – and Chesterton would say – that diversity has obvious limits in the context of a club or religion. The title of his book is Heretics, after all. A member of a group who wants to actively work against the stated and settled aims of that group should leave. You don’t serve bacon at a vegetarian potluck and still call yourself a vegetarian and you don’t serve soya bean “hot dogs” at a Paleo potluck. In the same way, a person who actively opposes the Catholic Church’s teaching and encourages others to do so – no matter the reason – should stop calling himself Catholic. You shouldn’t wear the jersey of Team A while cheering for Team B.)

So to return to the notion of travel, Chesterton says you’re stepping out of a bigger, more challenging and unpredictable world while you travel. You’re not having nearly as many of those raw and real interactions that are part of life at home. It’s not that you can’t connect with people, but it’s necessarily more fleeting. You enter a world where your human interactions are more likely to reduce people to that blur. You won’t get to know them; you’ll consider them just from the outside. You’ve made your world more simple, smooth, predictable and small. It’s an escape.

He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians . . . He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at . . .

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And another aspect of Chesterton’s criticism of travel has to do with the idea of place. In the same way that people become a blur when you don’t spend much time with them or get to know them, places become a blur when you don’t approach them properly. You must be slow, patient and loyal about a place before you will really understand it.

It is inspiring without a doubt to whizz in a motor-car around the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”

To really understand a place, you must be still. You must be there for a long time, so that it stops feeling like ‘a place.’ When it becomes a part of who you are, then you will know its secrets.

It’s a common theme in his writing. He often presents the idea of focusing on a small thing in order to see the bigger picture. When you try to take in everything, you necessarily don’t go as deep, and so you feel like you understand it, but it’s all been quick and superficial. When you try to really understand something well, then you learn so much more about even the bigger picture. It’s the idea of quantity versus quality.

So when you really get to know one person well, you’ll come away with a better knowledge of humanity as a whole than you would if you got to know many people in just a surface way. If you get to know one place really well, then you’ll gain a better knowledge about places, cultures and homes than you would if you restlessly moved everywhere, like Rudyard Kipling did. Chesterton criticizes Kipling for his lack of loyalty to any one place. He never attaches whole-heartedly to a home; his reminiscences provoke Chesterton to call him a “philanderer of nations.”

The world-traveller who has, in theory, seen so much, has had time enough to notice only the differences in external appearance and behaviour. He “has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of all the things that divide men – diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons.” But all the seeing doesn’t cause better or bigger thinking. In his movement, this traveller hasn’t been able to digest as much.

And on this topic, haven’t you wondered what the ideal speed is for the human brain to absorb a place? We need time (2 minutes? 3 minutes?) to adjust to new surroundings, whether it’s an unfamiliar doctor’s office, a train station in a foreign city, or a grocery store with a different layout. So when we move from one place to the next, it seems like there’s some kind of an optimal speed to do that too, in terms of human well-being. It seems like it would be healthier if the speed of the change were to match the processing speed of the human brain, in the same way that we talk about ‘human-scale’ or ‘pedestrian- friendly’ buildings. Walking does seem about the right speed for taking in this kind of data. In the country-side, those four-legged walkers (donkeys, horses) are fine, but in the context of city streets, even a horse-drawn carriage goes way too fast. Sure, it’s fun, but it’s not quite what we’re wired for.

It’s a theme that Chesterton alluded to in his poem “A Fat Woman Speaks.” The woman who rushes by the fields while riding a train is appreciating the field so much less than the woman who walks through it.

In contrast, “the man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men – hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

And here we can picture a man who is living a slower-paced life and yet really considering the nature of all these things deeply. Look at what Chesterton says about such a person: “The man standing in his own kitchen garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

Large ideas! Chesterton gives the credit for large ideas to the one who is staying still!

And he mentions the “kitchen garden.” In other words, not acres upon acres and fields upon fields, but something small and homely, like a tiny patch of earth, or, at best, a “cabbage field.” It’s simple, not glamorous.

It brings to mind what was written about St. Thérése of Lisieux’s living space. Her life was so externally limited, yet her spiritual ideas were huge, unlimited and revolutionary. Fr. Jacques Philippe had the opportunity to visit the convent and grounds of St. Thérése many years after her death, and he was stunned at how cramped and small her surroundings were:

I realized what a tiny world, in human terms, she inhabited: a little provincial Carmelite convent, not outstanding for its architecture, a miniscule garden . . . However, and this is the paradox that struck me, when you read Thérése’s writings you never get the impression of a life spent in a restricted world, but just the opposite . . . Thérése lives in very wide horizons, which are those of God’s infinite mercy and her unlimited desire to love him. She feels like a queen with the whole world at her feet, because she can travel to every point in the globe where a missionary needs her prayer and sacrifices!

 – Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter I

And this description confirms what we find repeatedly in the stories of those who led saintly lives, and for that matter, in the stories of many great scientists and artists. In so many cases, they brought forth their “large ideas” when they were enclosed in tiny and humble spaces.

You could name so many saints who went through a period of enclosure and solitude – St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas are a few that come to mind. They imitate Christ’s forty days in the desert and his early mornings of prayer in lonely places. The time of being a hidden seed, growing in solitude and stillness, yields a rich harvest. The documentary, Into Great Silence, gives a taste of the beauty and richness of the contemplative religious life.

Joseph Pearce has spoken about how the gift of inspiration, called a ‘muse’ by the pagans, or ‘grace’ by Christians, which comes to artists and others, is a pure gift which must pass through the human artist. If the artist himself is pure, then the art will be better. If the artist is more mixed-up, then the gift will be more deformed and distorted as a result.

This would explain, then, how the artist/thinker/scientist who is distracted by the rush of life cannot keep the space within himself pure enough to receive inspiration well. The budding ideas will be trampled by the rush of images and sounds. The signal will suffer interference, so to speak.

Charlotte Bronte’s words bring to mind something like a walled garden, when she says: “There would still be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came; and sentiments growing there fresh and sheltered . . . “ (Jane Eyre, Chapter XXXIV)

In other words, there’s an interior place within us (our soul?) which needs quiet and stillness in order to receive and preserve the “large idea” which Chesterton refers to. If we have that, then we might have almost everything we need. You could be physically restricted in the cell of a convent or a jail cell, but the interior world is not closed to you, and in fact, is more accessible to you than ever before.

The idea of the person who ‘finds Jesus’ when he spends time in prison has become almost a laughable concept, but I believe the sincerity of it. I believe that the people in prison can be light-years ahead of the rest of us in terms of the amount of time they’ve spent thinking about big things.

By contrast, the ‘movers and shakers’ of the world perhaps are moving and shaking the good ideas out of their grasp, and could use more time spent in stillness. I note that people who write about time-management (usually for businessmen) will always emphasize the importance of carving out some quiet alone time in order to think carefully about what they’re trying to accomplish.

The saints advise the same thing. They all say that you need the time alone with God through daily prayer in order to make any progress at all. It’s a relationship, and with zero time invested in communication, it’ll fall apart. The relationship will be lost in all our movement and noise. There’s the Old Testament story where Elijah was told to wait for God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold there came a voice to him. . .

– 1 Kings 19:11

The message here is that if you are looking for God, you have to listen for the “still, small voice.” God has good manners, and he’s not going to display himself in a way which is overpowering and irresistible, which takes away your power to decide. His way is very quiet and subtle, so that you can avoid or ignore him if you choose. Small voices, such as the one of our conscience, can be over-ridden.

And so if you wish to receive God or even one of his gifts, such as artistic inspiration or the “large idea,” then you need to stay in one place and wait receptively. And so when Christ spoke of prayer, he said that we are to go into a room and close the door. We’re putting a stop to the movement of the wind, the earthquake and the fire. We are making a decision to be anchored to one place. The word ‘still’ has two aspects: the idea of not moving and the idea of not making a sound.

In motionlessness and quietness, there is life, as Chesterton says. “The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile.” And then he turns to the expression, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” He says, “The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.” (Heretics, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”)

In motionlessness and quietness, there is a space where God can visit us. So he asks us to be alone, but it’s not so that we can be alone in some sort of lonely Buddhist or nihilistic yoga way. He asks for this separateness so that he can have us to himself for a few moments. It’s a relationship, and so it has many of the same elements that a romance does. The man in love wants time alone with the woman he loves; is it any wonder that our God would want time alone with the human he loves? He asks that we cross the threshold with him, in the pattern of the newly married husband and wife.

What do you think? Shall we unbuckle ourselves from the car and the zip-line? Can we unbuckle ourselves? Perhaps we’ve forgotten how!

But we should try.

We should go into our room.

And we should close the door.

Be still and know that I am God.

– Psalm 46: 10

Post 42

Boo!
The Horror of Hallowe'en
and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America

[I apologize that this post has graphic parts.]

In my last post, I said that tradition, in and of itself, should be reason to continue something.

This was a generalization, and I allow myself generalizations all the time (another generalization actually) because a person can’t say or think much of anything without generalizations. As a matter of fact, a lot of thinking is the process of identifying the connections between the things that you’ve observed in order to find the rules and the truths behind these things – before you know it, you’ve got another generalization.

In argument, people will say, “that’s a generalization,” but I don’t consider it a bad word. How can we speak without them? And in particular, how can we speak about important things without them? “I’m healthy” is a generalization, if you want to be really picky.

Having said that, you still feel a little uncomfortable [Read More . . . ]

Post 41

Cornflower and Cadet Blue: Reflections on Crayons

After thinking about it for some time, I bought myself some crayons.

There were a few different Crayola boxes to choose from.  I first considered the set of 64, but when I opened it, I saw that copper wasn’t included.  (My favourite, so I looked for it first.)  Gold and silver were there but I really couldn’t proceed without copper.

Turning to the 96-pack, I found that it did have copper, but I was rather leery about the 96-pack because of the box.  The box is really wide, and I guess crayon boxes are kind of like TVs, in that you can have too much of a good thing.  You can get TVs that are really big, but I draw the line around 32 inches on the diagonal; after that you’re inching into Fahrenheit 451 territory, seems to me.  The screen starts looking like the boss of you and your home.

Ray Bradbury has some interesting quotations.  Here’s one attributed to him about television:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

Have you read his Fahrenheit 451?  It was written in 1953 as a futuristic novel set in a time when books are illegal, and where firemen are responsible for burning the homes of people who own them.  The main character is a fireman.

I paused for a moment to imagine the government using firemen to set fires.  It would make a lot of sense, in that they’d know how to contain them too.

And then it suddenly struck me that as far-fetched as that sounds, isn’t the thought of doctors committing euthanasia or assisting with suicide actually more chilling than a fireman who destroys property?  And yet it’s not science fiction, because euthanasia happens in the Netherlands, Belgium, Albania, Luxembourg, a few states in the United States and could soon begin here in Canada.  It saves the government so much money, in terms of health care, that it’s being done to people whether they like it or not.  The statistics show that many (4,910 people in the year 1990 in the Netherlands, for example) of those people who are killed didn’t want to die at all, and they even kill children or adults who are disabled. It’s gotten to the point that some elderly people won’t go to the hospital when they have medical issues, since they are (rightfully) concerned that they could be murdered.  In places which permit euthanasia (doctor administers the lethal drug) or assisted suicide (patient administers the supplied drug), those who were trained to protect and preserve are being paid to destroy or help destroy, just like the firemen in Bradbury’s novel.

I once saw a quotation that every time an elderly person dies, a library burns to the ground.  And there’s a lot of validity in comparing people with libraries.  For starters, both are precious and shouldn’t be deliberately destroyed.

As for the libraries, we don’t see tell-tale destruction by fire, but truly, many books are quietly getting purged from our libraries.  Classic books, in particular, are being removed from the collections by ‘progressive’ librarians to make room for Disney videos, video game stations for children, and computers with internet access.  The traditional books for children are being rapidly replaced by books which have no moral.  I know this partly because KindOne spoke to a publisher who said they reject any submissions which contain a moral.

As Chesterton says, children don’t have issues with stories which have a moral, which show that good things happen when you do good, and bad things happen when you do evil.  Those have always been the best stories in the history of humanity, and children like them.  It’s the adults who can’t deal with them, who view them as preachy and want to replace them with ‘fresh’ stories with no moral and no point.

(Or, in some cases, the publishers cooperate with the new social agenda, which presents a new kind of ‘morality.’   God forbid the day when we have books called, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Grandma.” On the back cover we will see “An excellent resource!  Help your child work through issues of grieving when it’s time to euthanize family members and collect the inheritance.”)

But back to the riveting drama of my crayon purchase . . .

The box containing the 64-pack is just about perfect, to my eye, and I’m not even referring to the built-in sharpener.  It’s luxury without ostentation.  And it doesn’t hurt that the box almost looks like a square.

And here I have to tell you that after I confided that squares are my favourite shape, I came across this:

Darkness full of thunder followed, and after the thunder Father Brown’s voice said out of the dark: “Doctor, this paper is the wrong shape.”

“What do you mean?” asked Doctor Harris, with a frowning stare.

“It isn’t square,” answered Brown.

 – G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown, “The Wrong Shape”

Isn’t that neat?  Of course I love that, especially taken out of context like this.

So there I was, standing under the bright florescent lights of the store, where there are no windows to remind you that there’s a world outside, and no clock to remind you that you have better things to do.  There are just lots of colourful things everywhere, bright and shiny.  (I really like shopping anywhere there’s a lot of colour and texture.  They say women have more cones in their eyes, so they can perceive these things better than men, whereas men have more rods, which means they are better at judging distance and speed.  This general rule means that a lot of men really can’t tell the difference between two shades of beige paint swatches, unless they were both being flung through the air by a frustrated spouse, in which case, they’d be great at telling you which one was travelling faster.)

So anyway, after some deliberation, I did the only thing a person could do in such a predicament: I bought both boxes, with the idea that I’ll gather my favourites into the box of 64, and then give away the box of 96.

When I got home with my thrilling purchase, I opened both boxes and gingerly pulled out crayon after crayon.  They seemed a lot smaller than I remembered them; thinner and more delicate.  Funny – they didn’t seem small to me the last time I used them!  As I slid them out one at a time, I read the different labels. I said to myself, “Here’s Indian Red” but when I looked at it, it wasn’t called that anymore.  Do you remember Indian Red?

Yes or no, you do remember the crayons, right?  I don’t mean just that you used them, but I mean really remembering them.  Chesterton writes about remembering the art pencils of his childhood, and reading his description sometime last year reminded me of my own affection for crayons.

In the passage, he talks about how when you remember something a few times, you’re not remembering the real event, person or thing – you’re kind of remembering your memory.  He says that a pure memory, when you are thinking of it for the first time after all those years, can really startle you:

I do not think here of the strong colours . . . much as I exulted and still exult in them . . . But when I remember that these forgotten crayons contained a stick of ‘light-red,’ seemingly a more commonplace colour, the point of that dull red pencil pricks me as if it could draw red blood.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Ch. I

I bet nearly everyone remembers the crayons, and as a matter of fact, it occurred to me that maybe it would be therapeutic for Alzheimer patients to have their own sets.  I’m serious! They say that when your memory starts to go, you lose the recent stuff, and then as the illness progresses, you lose the earlier memories.  That would mean that crayons would be some of the last memories to be lost.

This would mean that one of the last memories I lose will be the memory of the picture I drew on the first day of kindergarten at age five.  I used a broken red crayon (we were allowed to choose only one colour) to draw a girl walking a dog on a leash.  This dog had a cat on a leash, and the cat had a mouse.  They all trotted along cooperatively on the bottom of the page.

It was meant as realism, and there was no symbolism in my drawing, I assure you.  (Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)  Most children aim at realism, but I was quite opinionated about it even at age five.  When the child next to me said that his was ‘a design,’ I felt it was a cop-out. (“Design!” I said to myself, “How can you just do a ‘design?’”)  I was slightly appalled, which shows that I’ve been opposed to abstract art for as long as I can remember.

But back to the crayons, they provide multi-sensory memories.

Do you remember how they were?  Do you remember how it felt to open a brand new box?  All the colours are there, so pristine and tempting.  Do you remember the feel of the paper wrappers on them?  It’s not smooth; it’s got a roughness to it, like construction paper.  Do you remember how they sounded? If they bump into each other, they have that light clunking sound like pieces of hollow wood.  And of course, there’s the smell.  It’s an unmistakable smell, and I really like it.

I should film myself smelling the crayons.  Wouldn’t that be bizarre?  Would you click on the link to it?  Here’s me on YouTube, smelling crayons.

(If you would click, that would show, I suppose, that you’re very silly, and even sillier than me. After all, at least I’d be getting the scent, while you’d be just getting the visuals of somebody else getting the scent, which is, well, not very much.)

Doesn’t the smell bring back childhood memories?  It’s quite unique. Maybe they could come out with a perfume line based on Crayola crayons.  The men’s product line could be called Mahogany, and the women’s could be called Orchid.  “Hey, this perfume smells like CRAYONS!” and the fragrance lady would say, “Yes, it’s made from the Orchid crayon, not orchids – it’s for the nostalgic types, you know.”

To be truthful though, I can’t smell the difference between Mahogany and Orchid.  But maybe there is a difference because different colours rely on slightly different chemicals.  I was reading that during war time, they couldn’t make some of the colours due to a shortage of certain compounds.  Dogs, on the other hand, who can smell a million times better than people, could probably totally tell the difference.  This could really come in handy, if you were blind and yet you wanted to draw a really nicely coloured picture when there were no people around to help you distinguish the colours and all you had was your dog and he could understand your requests.  YOU: “Rover, fetch me Burnt Sienna!” ROVER: sniff, sniff, wag, wag.  YOU: “Good dog.”  Mind you, I suppose even if he got it wrong, you’d be none the wiser.

So although I haven’t coloured with them yet – not being ready for that step in this relationship – I did organize them.  First, I had to decide how I was going to make sense of all the colours in the boxes.  What was I aiming for anyway?

In my research (yes, of course I researched it!  What do you do when you’re supposed to be doing something else?), I found that for more than thirty years, from 1958 to 1990, the ‘Crayola No. 64’ was the largest box you could get, and they didn’t change the colours during that time, which means that you could argue that it represents the ‘classic’ box.

Chesterton says you can’t have ‘progress’ unless you have a fixed notion of what you’re trying to progress towards.  Ideals should be fixed, is his point, and then you can move towards them.  If the idea of what is Good keeps getting redefined, so that the goals themselves keep shifting, then that’s not good.  The problem with moving targets is that they’re moving.  The nice-sounding jargon is a way of avoiding a real discussion:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘liberty;’ that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘progress;’ that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about ‘education;’ that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’  This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’  This, logically stated, means ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’  He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’  This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.’

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, Chapter II

So anyway, I decided that my goal would be to attempt to reassemble the classic box, the Crayola No. 64.  That box was going to be my fixed star.

(And here again, it amuses me to read the following after having written that last sentence:)

The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that the absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility . . . Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed onto a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope.  Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, Chapter IV

So the work began, and there I was – checking off crayons as I found them, cross-referencing what I had with what I was supposed to have.  It was a biblical Day of Judgment as I separated ‘the goats from the sheep.’  And it’s funny to recall now (because it wasn’t intentional) that I put the ones which had a classical pedigree to the right, and I put the ones which weren’t part of the Crayola No. 64 to the left (into the outer darkness).

By the time I was finished, I had my own special collection of No. 64, and of course Copper was nestled in there quite contentedly.  You may think that I was also the picture of contentment, but – alas – my tale does not end quite so simply.

Did you know that beginning in 1990, Crayola began ‘retiring’ crayons?  Yes!  It’s true!  Horrible, but true!  I did not know this.

And they even call it that.  In 1990, eight colours “retired into the Crayon Hall of Fame.”  Shocking!  And they’re using sports talk, as if these colours were athletes or sports jerseys.  But colours don’t retire!  Colours don’t stop playing! Colours are always at the top of their game.  They never needed to go; it was non-consensual! The decision was made for them, not by them.

Look at the colours which are no longer with us:

Orange Red (1958-1990)
Maize (1903-1990)
Orange-Yellow (1958-1990)
Lemon Yellow (1903-1990)
Green-Blue (1958-1990)
Violet-Blue (1930-1990)
Raw Umber (1903-1990)
Blue-Gray (1958-1990)

I think it was a mistake to banish these colours.  Crayola attempted to distract everyone from the loss by introducing eight new colours and holding contests to name them.

Now part of what I sigh for is the labels.  There’s something special about not only the colour but the name of the colour, which is partly why the contest was popular.  But think about “Lemon Yellow.”  That’s truly a classic name.  It’s got an international and timeless feel to it.  Are lemons now passé?  Are we through with lemons?  Lemons almost symbolize childhood, in the notion of a lemonade stand. You can’t be done with lemons, and you can’t be done with Lemon Yellow.

It’s the colour that you used when you wanted to really be emphatic about yellow.  It’s what you used when the tulip wasn’t just going to be Yellow, but rather, it was going to be REALLY yellow: it was going to be Lemon Yellow.  It was kind of like the highlighter of the crayon box.

And then they go and say that Lemon Yellow has gone into the Hall of Fame.  Hall of Fame?  A colour does me no good if it’s in a Hall of Fame.

Why don’t they just admit it? Instead of saying Raw Umber got ‘retired into the Crayon Hall of Fame,’ they should say that Raw Umber got ‘sacrificed on the Altar of Apparent Progress.’

And you know how it is with progress and overthrowing tradition: once you start, you don’t know where to stop.  When tradition isn’t enough to continue something (it should be – as Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”), then many things are put onto the chopping block.  That’s how we lost these two, which had such lovely nature names:

Thistle (1949-1999)
Mulberry (1958 – 2003)

My other reason for crying foul at this Hall of Fame idea is that Crayola has shown no hesitation in expanding the box, so it’s not as if there’s a finite amount of space for crayons.  During the same time that they’ve retired these colours, they’ve come out with bigger collections.  It’s kind of like telling someone there’s no room for them at the table, while you’re simultaneously expanding it and inviting new people to join in the fun.  Like I said, these crayons never were planning to leave.

I don’t really mind the new colours, because a colour is a colour, but I’m not sure about some of their names.  Probably I’m just grumpy that the noble elders have lost their seats to these flashy young upstarts: Jazzberry Jam, Mauvelous, and Razzmatazz are some of the names.  Exactly what colour is Razzmatazz?  The name offers no clue.  And “Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown” introduced in 1998, wasn’t improved when they dropped the word ‘brown’ in 2005 and left it as “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  A lot of ‘z’s here, I note.  Maybe ‘z’ feels more modern.

So there you have it.  The truth is that my box of Crayola No. 64 is not all that it could be.  You will see an empty space where the ten crayons should have been.  I have decided that the best testament (cue music) to the ostracized colours will be this gap, this forlorn space.  Henceforth all generations shall look upon this incomplete box and regret the loss of those valiant colours, who had served us so well, and who were taken from us all too soon.

Or . . .

You know, eBay does sell some vintage crayons.  There are some old tins which have a supplementary set of the eight crayons which were retired in 1990.  And you won’t be surprised to hear that I did seriously consider making a little online purchase.  The price wasn’t even that bad — $8.00 USD – until you add the cost of shipping to Canada (another $20 USD or so).  Of course, this wouldn’t get me Thistle and Mulberry (and Aquamarine, which is missing without explanation).  But for one reckless moment, the fixated mind disregards all else and the hand hovers over “Buy Now.”

But then sanity returns.  As Chesterton says, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” (Illustrated London News, May 5, 1928)

So I draw the line here.

I’ll draw it in Copper.

Sniff, sniff.

(That’s Rover, not me, in case you’re wondering.)

Post 40

A Story of Exile:
Reflections on the Life of the Stranger

[F]or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

                                  – Matt. 25:43

I think almost everyone wants to tell their story – the story of what has happened and what is happening in their life, whether it is something big, like the fire that raged through the neighbourhood, or something small, like the strange coincidence that happened this morning on the way in to work.  We even want to tell each other about the non-real things, because those happened too, in a way.  Last night’s dream for example, almost seems like a story worth telling.

Haven’t you had the situation where you’ve dreamt about someone you know and it was so realistic and memorable that now you want to tell them all about it?  “Hey, last night I dreamt you and I were clowns and we worked in a travelling circus and then you disappeared for a while and I couldn’t figure out where you were but then I looked up and saw you riding a unicycle on a trapeze rope and I was like, ‘Hey, when did you learn to do that?’ but you couldn’t hear me and then all of a sudden we were outside and somehow at that point it changed so that we were near the ocean and it was night and we were watching fireworks and having a picnic.  Wasn’t it incredible?”

But of course, you don’t say that.  And you kind of forget about it, until you see them later that day and you remember how last night you were both clowns, but then you don’t say it then either, because, well, you know that’s not the kind of story you tell.

. . . unless, I suppose, you’re paying someone to listen.

For about $100 per hour, you can find someone to listen to this story and other ones as well.  Psychologists will listen and perhaps even come up with a hidden meaning to your dream, though I think this practice is less in vogue than it used to be. At the very least, the psychologist will indulge your desire to describe it, since he’s being paid to listen, empathize and analyze.   Chesterton said “psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.” (“Fads and Public Opinion,” What I Saw in America.)

And indeed, despite all the criticism that is levelled at the Catholic Church for requiring periodic confession, the fact is that people need someone to talk to, especially about things that matter.  And in a society that has abandoned the Christian practice of confession (arguing either on the one hand that it’s unnecessary because you can just ‘pray directly to God,’ or arguing on the other hand that it’s unnecessary because there’s no such thing as sin), people are finding new and unusual ways of unburdening themselves.  It makes me think of a river that has lost its normal route – now it must overflow its banks and go all over the place.

One of my friends said that the most exhausting aspect of being a massage therapist was the fact that so many of her clients wanted to unburden themselves and tell her all of their life problems and dramas.  It makes sense to me: a client puts himself into the hands of the therapist in a unique physical way, and now that he trusts the therapist with his body, it’s not a big step to trust the therapist with his stories.  My friend wound up abandoning that line of work largely because she found it not only physically demanding, but also highly psychologically and emotionally demanding.  It’s hard work listening to humanity’s issues, and as difficult as it is to give advice, it is probably even more difficult to withhold advice, because it’s not wanted or because it runs the risk of offending a paying customer.  “Hmm, that client never came back after I told him he shouldn’t be cheating on his wife.”

Another therapist friend was telling me some of the things that she has learned about society’s latest experiments in immorality.  There is a lot of suffering amongst teenagers, for example, who have been encouraged to treat their bodies as a means to an end, instead of as something precious.  Truly, that therapist has all sorts of people walking through her door, and over the course of years, she has learned the depths of depravity to which many modern adult Canadians have sunk; things are not as rosy as they appear.  She could tell you stories!  And her detailed knowledge about what’s happening in local high schools has influenced her decision to begin homeschooling her own child.

Hairdressers have the same experience, but I think to a lesser degree, because there’s less intimacy in that setting.  Nevertheless, they also get an earful.  Part of the appeal for the client is that the hairdresser is often outside the client’s normal circle of friends and family, and so it’s so much more like telling a priest in the confessional, who will not reveal what he has heard.

But even when there’s no anonymity, there’s no shortage of people wanting to tell their story.  They will go on television talk shows and confess all sorts of things.  In fact, these people don’t want to be anonymous.  Their sensational story is going to be their method of becoming famous, in some cases.  I have to be careful here, though, because this doesn’t cover every instance.  Many good people suffer in the telling of their stories, but tell them anyway, in order to warn other people about certain dangers, or in order to help other people who are facing the same problem.  And one additional aspect of their suffering is the public perception that they’re seeking fame.

The rise of blogging can also be explained, to a large degree, by the desire to tell one’s story.  For many bloggers, their ‘invisible friends’ are a very significant part of their own support network.  The blogger writes about the latest events in her life, and she can imagine that here, at last, are people who really understand and sympathize with her.  Whether this in fact is the case or not, the blogger still has the cathartic experience of telling her story.

Indeed, in day to day life, there are always more story-tellers than listeners, especially empathetic listeners.  I saw a t-shirt the day before yesterday: “Please wait a moment, while I try to care.”  I thought, yes, that about sums up the modern attitude.

I feel sorry for all the people in the world who don’t have people to hear their stories.  Children, for example, have a lot of things they want to talk about, but I don’t know if the world slows down enough for them to be heard, especially when both parents are working outside the home.  And husbands and wives also race by each other, preoccupied with work or with independent internet interests.  I saw an ad promoting home wifi capabilities (or something similar).  It showed an outline of a house, with one person in every room, each using one device.  Everyone in the house was using something different, and the walls of the house separated them all.  I thought, yes, that about sums up the modern lifestyle.  It makes those not-too-long-ago days of the family sitting around glued to the television set seem downright cozy.

And too many seniors are also left with nobody to talk to.  I spoke with a Sister of Providence, who said that there was one senior sister who was losing her ability to speak after having been in a neglectful seniors’ residence, and she had to be rehabilitated.  Bit by bit, she regained her ability to talk.

And on the topic of seniors, it’s too bad that our culture underestimates the advantages of grandchild to grandparent time.  These interactions are in so many ways a perfect fit.  It’s so often the case that grandparents and children are moving at a slower pace, and are more able to enjoy each other.  I’m not saying that grandparents aren’t busy, but rather that they are often willing to make themselves available to younger children in a way that harried parents aren’t able to.

Of course, there is no set of years where it’s good to be left without a listener, but I think our world would be much improved if those aged from about 9 to 19 had more time with mature adult listeners to work through their issues.  It’s a time when physically and intellectually, these young people can seem like independent adults, but they are grappling with really big issues with very little preparation.  Yet it’s at this point that parents start accepting a much-diminished role.  They see their child interacting with friends and are happy for the friendships, without realizing that the child still needs the parent in a really deep and significant way.  If a parent steps back too much, and parents via text messaging (“where r u?”), this leaves a very big void in the life of the tween or teen or young adult, who loses the ability to tell his story to someone who has been through these turbulent years.  Young people often ooze maturity and mimic a nonchalant cool attitude, but underneath all of that, there’s insecurity and searching.

Who knows? Perhaps part of the reason parents give their children so much space is because they don’t want to have these more important conversations.  Maybe they feel hypocritical to question their child’s behaviour when they know that they’ve made so many mistakes of their own.   But the truth is that mistakes are a source of very useful information.  I’m not suggesting that parents confess all past failings; my point is that parents shouldn’t self-disqualify because they haven’t been saints.  Painful past experiences might prove providentially useful – now, for example, the father will think of warning his daughter about the mixed motives of the new boyfriend, and now the mother will be able to fully empathize with her teenager, because she knows all about the heartbreak and healing of a break-up.

Without a parent being receptive to a young person’s stories, the young person will seek advice from his peers.  This is usually worse.  I say ‘usually’ because some adults do embrace a false notion of freedom, (where freedom means licentiousness – doing whatever you want whenever you want) and themselves act like dogs in an off-leash park.  Now these parents might not be able to offer stellar advice, but at least they offer their love and empathy.  And their unconditional love for their child puts them in a unique position.  They can be a true friend on the journey:

Imposing things by force, in an authoritarian manner, is not the right way to teach.  The ideal attitude of parents lies more in becoming their children’s friends – friends who will be willing to share their anxieties, who will listen to their problems, who will help them in an effective and agreeable way.

Parents should find time to spend with their children, to talk with them.  They are the most important thing – more important than business or work or rest.  In their conversations parents should make an effort to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to recognize the fact that their children are sometimes partly right – or even completely right – in some of their rebellious attitudes.

. . .

Listen to your children.  Give them your time, even the time that you have reserved for yourselves.  Show them your confidence; believe whatever they tell you, even if sometimes they try to deceive you. Don’t be afraid when they rebel, because, at your age, you yourselves were more or less rebellious.  Go to meet them halfway and pray for them.  If you act in this Christian manner, they will come to you with simplicity, instead of trying to satisfy their legitimate curiosity by taking it to some rough or vulgar friend.

St. Josemaria Escriva, Marriage: A Christian Vocation, Homily contained in Christ is Passing By

I like St. Josemaria Escriva.

Chesterton said Spaniards think like soldiers.

Anyway, when I started this post, I was planning to talk about a particular kind of story, and that is the story of the immigrant.

I like asking immigrants about their life before Canada (“B.C.” if you like), because here’s a group of people with fascinating stories to tell!  The life of an immigrant is cleaved into two halves: there were the years before the move, and the years after.

In particular, I like to ask them about their line of work in their home country.  How many times have I seen their faces light up when they begin to talk about this!  “I was a farmer!”  “I was a teacher!” It’s so often the case that their work involved considerable effort, and gave them both identity and prestige.  This identity and prestige can be lost to them when they start life over in a place where English is essential.

We’d feel something of the same loss, if we had to start life again in some foreign place where our previous workplace or educational credentials didn’t count for much, and where we were unable to use our first language.  We’d likewise probably be more than happy to tell anyone our story – our story about how, when we lived in Canada, we worked as a real estate agent, an editor, a lawyer.

I remember the man I met who works in the shoe section of a department store.  I had a pile of receipts that needed to be reprocessed – it was some kind of mess involving returning this, repurchasing that, applying this discount and that credit – and I watched as his mind whirred really capably through all this.  It prompted me to ask him what he did before Canada.  As it turns out, he has a couple of Masters degrees and is currently working to get licensed here as a naturopath, if I remember correctly.

And then there was the fellow from Mongolia, who was a language professor there.  In addition to Mongolian, he knows Arabic, Russian, Persian and a Chinese dialect which isn’t Mandarin or Cantonese.  I think there might have been one more language too.  Anyway, he said that when he came to Canada, he knew only two phrases, “Hello” and “Thank you.”  (It must have felt odd to be able to speak so many languages and then live somewhere that you can’t make a sentence.)

He’s working as a house painter right now.

And as I think of Europe, I was surprised to see such huge numbers of migrants hawking goods there.  The travel videos don’t prepare you for that.   The migrants I saw were from northern Africa.

The fascinating thing about these salesmen was that they all looked kind of the same, and they all acted the same.  When I say they looked the same, I’m echoing Chesterton’s words that “a nation is never a type, but it is nearly always a tangle of two or three roughly recognizable types.” (Chapter V of his Saint Thomas Aquinas)  They were all men, and they ranged in age from about 20 to 65.  They had similar clothing, haircuts, accents, build and height.

And they all had the same product and the same approach.  They would stand around in the areas which were thick with tourists, and they would approach them saying, “Selfie? Selfie-stick?” They were selling holders for cell phone cameras.  The idea is that you put your camera into them, and then you can hold your camera further away from yourself.  A tourist might want such a thing, in order to get more of the background into the photo.  There were so many of these migrant salesmen that in some areas, you would be approached by one salesman every thirty seconds.

It was striking how they seemed to act as a unit.  When a few drops of rain fell, it was all the same men, but all of a sudden, all the holders disappeared because now they were all selling umbrellas. “Umbrella?  Umbrella?”

Where did all the umbrellas come from?  Did they have them with them the whole time? It was like a magic trick.

I wondered how they were organized, because they obviously were.  Someone must have gotten all those holders at a wholesale rate and distributed them to the salesmen. Someone planned that umbrellas would be part of their product line during rainy moments, and someone decided that near religious sights, they’d be selling the holders PLUS rosaries.  And I wondered, could they really make any money at all selling these things?  I did see some tourists purchasing them, but not many.  Did they share their profits if they made any?  Did they all live in the same area of the city, saving on rent by living in an over-crowded way?  Were they married?  Did they have children?  How could they feed themselves on such a meagre income?

I thought it would be interesting to follow them around when they weren’t being salesman, to see what their lives were like.  I didn’t do it obviously, but a person wonders about these mysterious people.  Despite acting and looking roughly similar, each of those salesman has a unique story.  I wonder, for starters, what conditions were like where they came from, that they’d prefer selling unnecessary goods to uninterested people.

And the stories of the people fleeing Syria and Iraq are almost surreal; people leading normal lives are transformed into refugees overnight as violence comes to their neighbourhoods. I don’t know if ‘civil war’ is a particularly accurate way of describing the situation; it seems too lopsided to merit the name ‘war.’  Christians are being persecuted, tortured and killed.  Sometimes crucifixion is used as the method of murder.

These are sad stories.  They remind you of the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt.  It will take a long time for these people to recover, and part of the recovery will involve finding new homes, experiencing once again a feeling of being ‘home.’

Everyone needs that – the feeling of having a home, a little piece of the world that belongs to you, and that you belong to.  The sensation that you don’t fit, that you don’t belong, in a world where everyone else seems to fit and seems to be going about their daily business, is very painful and disorienting.

It’s easy to judge those who emigrate and don’t seem to assimilate, but I think this process takes time, and I don’t even know how much control you have over those feelings of nostalgia or homesickness.  Would you be the type who could forget and ‘move on’ at a speed satisfactory to observers, or would you be the type who wants to socialize almost exclusively with the fellow Canadians that you find in a new land?  I don’t know if we can entirely predict our behaviour.  One immigrant reflected that he was more eager to come to Canada than his wife was, but now he finds that she has settled in very well and would never think of returning, but that he misses his homeland.  By contrast, my dentist said that upon returning back to Canada after a visit to his native country, he was surprised to notice how he felt like he was ‘coming home.’

Certainly, the younger you are when the move happens, the more easily you are able to adapt.  And here, I begin a lament.  I worry for the families who come to Canada hoping for a better life, because there’s more than one way to define “a better life.”

So many people come to Canada for the sake of their children.  I knew a woman who was separated from her husband and twin sons for ages before she was able to have them here.  She missed years of their childhood years.  How painful this must have been!  I would see her week after week, and she was always waiting for the next hurdle to be overcome, the next notification of a step completed in the long bureaucratic process.

These parents don’t dwell on the sacrifices that they have to make if it means that their children will have opportunities to have an education, a career and a normal family life.  They are motivated by the love of their children.

They relinquish, in many cases, their own career-related prestige, but they urge their own children to excel academically, so that they can go to university and have a good career here in Canada.  The Mongolian painter tells me that he says to his children that the day they start university will be the day that he gives them keys to their own vehicle “with zero kilometres!” (In other words, it’ll be brand new.) It’s so typical for immigrant parents to really push their children to excel.

He wants the “better life” for them, the happy ending to the story of the big move.  And I want that ending too, for him and for all parents.  The thing is, I’m not sure that modern-day Canada is going to provide the happy ending that they seek.  After all, I live in a country which is changing at a break-neck pace, but change is not the same as progress.

Oversexed and Disneyfied mass media combined with a dumbed-down and agenda-driven educational system sweep everyone – but the young in particular – towards new ideals of hedonism, consumerism and relativism.  Meanwhile, Canada’s Supreme Court dismantles the moral structure of our society, one decision at a time, while the government shrugs its shoulders.  For 25 years, we Canadians have been without any restrictions on abortion whatsoever, a fact which many Canadians don’t even realize; this means that a nine-month old baby which is days away from being born can be killed in the womb without any penalty (and it does happen). Canada is one of only four nations in the world which allows this horrifying and barbaric practice, called ‘late-term abortion’:

It is bad enough that governments in China and North Korea employ forced late-term abortions. The United States and Canada should be ashamed of themselves for providing and promoting the same procedure which, when done elsewhere in the world, is regarded as a human rights violation.

-Rebecca Downs, LifeSite News, Aug 4, 2013

And on February 6th of this year, the Supreme Court struck down the laws prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia.  These are two decisions among many which are destroying the foundation of our country.  The Supreme Court is equipped with highly intelligent people, but as DiscerningOne says, “Intelligence isn’t the same thing as wisdom.”

The country that we offer to newcomers is a shell of what it was formerly, and I am not particularly inclined to expect and demand that newcomers assimilate and accept the values which are currently in fashion.  We used to have a culture, but now we have ‘bread and circuses,’ a phrase explained well by Wikipedia:

This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirical poet Juvenal (circa A.D. 100). In context, the Latin panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which no longer cares for its historical birthright of political involvement. Here Juvenal displays his contempt for the declining heroism of contemporary Romans. Roman politicians passed laws in 140 B.C. to keep the votes of poorer citizens, by introducing a grain dole: giving out cheap food and entertainment, “bread and circuses”, became the most effective way to rise to power.

-Wikipedia, panem et circenses

Indeed, my fear is almost that the children of these newcomers will assimilate.  My fear is that they will all too readily absorb and revel in the cheap delights that our society offers to its young people.  The parents, who naively think that their children go to school in order to learn academics, may find, to their dismay, that their children come home with a new attitude and a new set of values, entirely different from those of their parents.  And on top of all this, these children sometimes become ashamed of their ancestry because it makes them ‘different.’  Do these parents, who have sacrificed so much, also lose the hearts and minds of their children?  I truly hope that this isn’t how the story ends, but in too many cases, this is the outcome.  Dorothy Day lamented in 1952:

Tradition!  We scarcely know the word any more.  We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them.  We scorn nobility in name and in fact.  We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington, all of a pattern . . . These are the attitudes the Irish, the Italians, the Lithuanian, the Slovak and all races begin to acquire in school.  So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language, and no longer listen to their mothers when they say, ‘When I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.’ They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and leave their faith and folk songs and costumes and handicrafts, and try to be something which they call ‘an American.’

-Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist, The Generations Before

I wish we had something better to offer the newcomers to Canada.  I wish we could offer them the country that we used to have – a time when extended family would gather together in the living room and everyone would play instruments and sing and dance or at least tap their feet, a time when men wore hats and removed them whenever they wanted to show respect, a time when women had genuine community with each other, working together to make food and relaxing together to make quilts or something similar, a time when children played freely in the neighbourhood and churches organized dances and nativity plays.  If we had that, then probably assimilation would be a positive thing.

I know that some places around the world still have robust cultures, and I almost want to weep when I hear what they still have and enjoy.  I hear, for instance, how in Serbia, one of the honours of being best man is that he’s the one who leads the kolo dance at the wedding reception (how fun!), and I hear how, in Russia, there’s the day when Russian men give flowers to all the women (how poetic!).  Such traditions!  When I talked with the man who repaired my laptop, also an immigrant, about the decline of culture here in North America, he agreed and exclaimed that he never expected to hear such things from a Canadian.  But I know that I’m not the only one with such sentiments; many Canadians fondly remember a time when ‘tradition’ was a good and powerful word.

It seems that we are in such a hurry to destroy everything that has any connection with the past.  I can say with Chesterton that “It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile.” (The Judgement of Dr. Johnson, Act III)

And indeed, “exile” is the right word.  I live in the same city that I was born in, but I find that all around me, things are changing at a frenetic pace.  I’m not opposed to natural development, but the current mania with overturning everything just because it’s been done before is short-sighted and irresponsible. Where is the country that I remember from my childhood?  Or for that matter, where is the country that I had three years ago?  I can’t help but wonder, if you leave the people in place, but destroy and exile the culture and values instead, doesn’t that effectively make the populace homeless in an important way?

I haven’t left my country; my country has left me!

Perhaps I have more in common with the migrant than I realized.  Like them, I look around and don’t recognize where I am anymore.  The anthem that plays reminds me of an entirely different time, and if I sing, I sing for the sake of something that was, not something that is.  I’m not proud of where my country is heading, and I wish we could turn it around; I wish I could go to the ‘discard’ pile and fish out all the things that are on the verge of extinction.

Maybe there will be enough people who want this that we’ll see a revival of culture.  I know that those who do homeschool their children are often very interested in preserving tradition, and I hear that gardening is the fastest growing hobby.  Those who revive these things are swimming upstream.

So it’s either go with the flow or swim against the current.

And hey, maybe there’s a third option – maybe a person could just wait it out.  What do you think?  Maybe if I just wait long enough, everything will come full circle, and we’ll all party like it’s 1899.

Let me know when things are normal again.

I’ll be over here in this corner with my beet soup.

Don’t mind me.

It’s just another case of homesickness.  I’m nostalgic for the land I remember, the place we used to have.

That’s my story.

And as I think along these lines, I am intrigued by the idea of a Christian as a pilgrim, as someone who, while appreciating what is here, is also not quite ‘at home.’  And at the end of the day, I suppose that even if a society is doing an excellent job of preserving its culture and living out its traditions, a full earthly life is still just a foretaste of heaven, and will still be incomplete and flawed.  Every society has its problems, because every society is made up of fallible human beings.

The pilgrim concept goes a long way in explaining the sensation that things could fit a lot better than they do.

It says that our short time on earth isn’t the whole story.

It says that there’s another place that will feel a lot more like home, and that will be our happy ending.

And you know, it will be incredible.  You’ll ride your unicycle on the trapeze and I’ll set up the picnic.

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

-Hebrews 13:2

Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind.

-Ezekiel 39:28

Post 39

Hey Salamander!
Reflections on Adjectives and Other Types of Name-Calling

So I’ve now named 18 people while blogging.  As you know, I name my friends and relatives using adjectives.

I know that’s a little bit unusual.

The most normal method, if you don’t want to call everybody the same thing (“my friend”), is to hand out fictitious names.  You can use an asterisk too, if you want to do it the way the magazines do: Jane* or Liz* or Joe*.   Upon seeing the *, the eye of the reader will reflexively dart to the bottom of the article.

At least, that’s what happens to me.

Now you would think that, by now, I would stop being intrigued by the *.  But you can call me Charlie Brown – that little asterisk is Lucy’s football, and I always fall for it.

It makes no sense, I know.  What exactly am I expecting to see, after all?  Is the name-swappity thing so extraordinary and novel to me that I don’t know what it’s going to say when I get there?

Perhaps subconsciously I think it’s going to explain something very special about Jane, in fine print – you know, like some kind of top-secret privileged information, a reward for keeners.  So I go on a little treasure hunt, and of course I find this: “Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.”  Of course.  Of course.  I knew that.  I knew it was going to say that.  “But if you knew that it was going to say that, then why did you go and check?”  I don’t know.  I guess I thought – I guess I thought that it might say something different, this time.  You never know.  It could happen.   And consider: what if the one time I didn’t check it, it said something exciting, like: “Names have not been changed, for the sake of reality.”  Then I would miss a really sensational moment.

So anyway, I didn’t want to go the Jane* route.

Mind you, that method could be rather fun if you were to let your friends choose their own names.  We could all play pretend.  Who are you going to be?   One of my friends already has a favourite fake name.  I did not know this.  I told her that I had given her a name for the purposes of my blog and she said, “Ooh, what did you name me?  Did you call me Veronica?  I really like the name Veronica.  Is that what you named me?  I was even thinking of changing my name to Veronica.  How about that?  So is that what you picked?”

She was really excited about being Veronica.

So I had to admit, rather sheepishly, that, well, no, I didn’t actually think of using the name Veronica.

“Oh” she said.  She would have liked to be called Veronica.

So I thought that I should let you know that if you see a reference to SpiritedOne, it’s actually Veronica.  Or to be more exact, it’s someone who would like to be called Veronica.   I’ll write it like this to remind you: SpiritedOne*.  (Am I supposed to put the period before the asterisk or after? The consensus seems to be for after, so I should say, SpiritedOne.* Yeah, maybe that looks better.)

I think it might be kind of fun to choose our own fake names.  I think I might choose Naomi, kind of a rearrangement of my own name, but more common and therefore more convenient.  On the other hand, perhaps I should choose a saint’s name.  What do you think of Maria?  Can you see me as a Maria?

(As I type this, I remember that SpiritedOne* has already given me a name.  When I told her I don’t own a cell phone, she said, “What are you?  Some kind of Luddite?  They used to burn people like you, you know.”  As a matter of fact, I did not know this.  I did not know they used to burn people who didn’t have cell phones.  I wonder if they’d burn you if you had just a flip-phone.  Maybe not.  Maybe they’d just singe you a little and let you go.   So you can call me Luddite.  Or, to make it cuter, how about LittleLuddite?  Or you could go even cuter: LiddleLuddite.  Then when it finally catches on, I’ll go and wow you by setting myself up with an iPhone62 or whatever it is by then.)

There are, of course, a few disadvantages to this choose-your-own-alias method of naming.  In the first place, maybe my friends wouldn’t want to play along.  I can hardly imagine EfficientOne thinking that this is a good use of his time.   As a matter of fact, I wonder if men spend any time at all in thinking about what they’d rename themselves if given a chance.  When little boys play Let’s Destroy the Universe or whatever, do they usually rename themselves, or do they just get down to work?  Maybe men do think of such things more than it would appear.  CandidOne’s husband says he wishes he got the full version of his own name, and not just the nickname.  So perhaps they do have thoughts on the issue, and they just don’t openly discuss it, the way SpiritedOne* and other women do.  Hmm.  I should go around asking.  Maybe they would all name themselves “Bond, James Bond.”   Or maybe Thor.   I bet Chesterton thought about it, being all literary, and having to name all of his characters.

But anyway, the second disadvantage with asking people to come up with a fictitious name for themselves is that they’d say, “Why do you ask?”  I’d say, “Oh, nothing really, I just want to talk about you on the internet, that’s all.”

I also considered naming my friends after animals.  Yes, I really did.  I tell you no lies.  It’s not as far-fetched as it initially sounds – can’t you imagine naming certain people after certain animals?  It’s a rather fun mental exercise.  You’ll think of a certain friend and then after some minutes of solid thinking, the appropriate animal will pop into your head.  You might even laugh out loud because it will be so incredibly right.  And when the fit is just perfect, you can get on the phone and say, “Hey, I just figured out that you are TOTALLY a kangaroo!”

It’s something that a person could conceivably do, you know, if that person didn’t mind losing all of her friends, sort of one-by-one.  “Strange.  Ever since I referred to her as a Parakeet, she’s been rather distant.”

And then there’s the big problem that there’s quite an imbalance.  You can get away with calling men lots of animal types, and they won’t be offended at all.  Just pick some largish mammal and they’ll be good with it: tiger, lion, bear (but not panda or koala), and you can even consider the reptiles: gecko, tortoise and so on.  But when it comes to women, the choices are extremely limited.  There are a few acceptable birds (dove, swan, sparrow) but I can’t think of many other animals which would go over well.  Even when you consider the same species, nothing works.   A man is okay as a bull, but a woman is not okay as a cow.  A man is okay as a rooster, but a woman is not okay as a chicken.  Rather limiting.

So I moved on.

I began considering my friends in terms of their personality, or, to be more specific, their good points or virtues.  With every person, there would be a few virtues that stood out, for me, more prominently than others.  And so it seemed like it could work.  It seemed like there would be enough adjectives to choose from.

And to explain why it was someone’s Virtue A, and not their Virtue B (because of course, they have multiple, as I’ll get into later) which stood out for me, I have to mention that ‘feeling-opposite’ effect.

Let me explain, and then you can tell me if it happens to you.  When you interact with different people, don’t you find that you often feel the opposite of a characteristic that you perceive in them?  For example, if you are with someone really tall (I know someone who is 6’8”) don’t you suddenly feel really short?  If you’re with someone really short, don’t you suddenly feel like a giant?

No?  Okay, well, then never mind.

I find it across the board, not just with physical traits.  If I’m with someone really talkative, I feel like a quiet person.  When I’m with someone really quiet, I feel like a blabber-mouth.   And I find it applies with emotional things: there’s nothing like being with an over-wrought person to make me feel like the picture of composure, and when I’m with someone who is extremely even-keeled, I feel almost hysterical.

And it applies to spiritual traits too.

When we are up close and personal with someone who is really holy, we become more conscious of how we are not.

Perhaps it partly explains St. Peter’s reaction when Jesus surprised him with all those fish, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

And with the other saints, it’s strange to read what they’ve written, because they’re so conscious of their sinfulness, and yet they were so good!  An ordinary reader of a saint’s writing is bound to think, “Don’t be so hard on yourself!  After all, I know I’m swell and you’re way better than me!”  For a long time, I couldn’t understand the paradox.  Why were all these really nice people thinking that they were so unworthy and so sinful?  But then I came across some good explanations and analogies.  Usually the idea of glass or crystal is used.   The idea is that the closer you are to Christ, and his light, the better you can see your own failings and imperfections.  One priest compared it to a windshield on a car; in the dark, the glass looks pretty good (TenaciousOne said: “Everybody looks great in dim lighting from a few feet away”), but in the bright sunlight, you can see the truth of all the flaws.

But it’s not as depressing as it sounds; the saints are quite content to see themselves as insufficient and incomplete in and of themselves.  They’re truly humble, so this doesn’t cause them any dismay. They know Christ accepts their good intentions and efforts, and his mercy towards them is a source of relief, gratitude and joy.  St. Therese of Lisieux said she had gotten to the point where she was pleased to find fresh faults within herself.

The idea here is that the saints are really, really close to Christ, and so they see themselves as they really are.  We’re not as close, so we can cruise for a good long time, rather smug with our own sanctity or with our own okayness.  I’m okay and you’re okay.  He’s okay and she’s okay.   (Is okay another word for lukewarm?)

But anyway, my experience is that when we’re around someone, it’s often the differences that we notice most quickly – the differences between who they are and who we are, not only physically, but also mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.

So part of my own naming process reflects this; the adjectives I use contain within them the effects of this ‘feeling-opposite.’  CharitableOne seems to really know how to be charitable, whether that comes naturally to her or whether it’s something that she values so highly that she’s become really good at it.  I want to be more similar to her in this way.

And just for the record, I must say that when I say this, I’m not trying to insult myself or to (in a display of humility) talk as if I’m insulting myself.

I’m just mentioning it because I think we all have that effect on each other.  People are so different, and they get good at different virtues at different rates, and so we perceive virtues and positive attributes in each other especially when they seem to have it figured out and know how to live it better than we do right now.

We learn from each other.

And this is good.  Indeed, it’s wonderful to learn from each other, to see certain good traits and virtues being put into practice in real-life contexts. We can emulate these behaviours.  I’m happy to celebrate these adjectives and the people in whom I see them embodied.

Having said that, there’s an obvious problem with all of this, and that is that a one-word summary of a person is obviously entirely and terribly incomplete, even if it’s a nice word.

After all, virtues come in clusters – or so it seems to me.

What about you?  Don’t you find that when you find one good trait in a person, it’s usually a sign that there are a whole bunch of other good traits nearby?  That biblical idea of the good tree yielding good fruit strikes me as exactly right.   The expression, ‘there’s more where that came from,’ is another way to put it.

When you discover that someone is a really diligent student or worker, it’s not really surprising to find out that they’re also honest and loyal and so on as well.  When you see someone being conscientious about little things, you can quite safely predict that they’ll be conscientious about big things too.  That’s also biblical.

(And of course it goes the other way too.   When you find someone who harbours resentment, encourages gossip, laughs at the misfortune of others, or acts as if dishonesty is the same as cleverness, then it’s not only a problem in itself, it’s also a ‘red flag’ signalling other serious blindness or malice.)

But anyway, since good qualities do cluster together, it’s really difficult to boil people down to one adjective.  I suddenly realized how similar my friends were to each other!  Kind, friendly, patient, polite, honest, sincere, considerate, thoughtful, tactful – such things are the norm among my friends, because I choose my friends based on my admiration for them.

My friends also share something else which I was initially going to call ‘moral intelligence.’  I say ‘initially’ because I’ve since decided that a better phrase would be ‘moral muscle’ because good behaviour, and knowledge about good behaviour, increases and improves with use, and atrophies with disuse.   It’s not a static thing.  Someone who has a habit of exercising good judgment or self-restraint, for example, becomes good at these things.  Conversely, someone who begins cutting corners, taking the easy way out and generally ignoring his conscience will gradually become more and more hazy about where the boundaries are in the first place.  His moral muscles will begin to atrophy, and he won’t be able to achieve even his previous level of good behaviour.  Something which would have been unthinkable a few months ago feels, today, kind of ‘daring’ or ‘honest’ or ‘not-as-bad-as-what-so-and-so-did.’

So it is difficult to choose one virtue among many.  I bet that if you were to try to name your friends’ virtues, you’d have the same problem as me: is it even possible to choose just one adjective?  And besides, I worry: does the recipient of the adjective think I’m blind to all her other virtues?   Maybe it would be easier to go with animal names after all.  (Guess what, VigilantOne?  You are SO a Brown Bear.)

But you know, this idea of identifying just a tiny number of good qualities happens all the time – at funerals.  Every day, there’s someone writing a eulogy, trying to figure out how to summarize an entire person with just a few adjectives.

As it happens, I went to another funeral yesterday.  Funerals have a beautiful side to them because they’re so real.  The pretence of every day life is gone.  It’s a place where people will openly weep, even if it makes their mascara run.  It’s a time when people will finally talk about a person in terms of their virtues and what they meant to the people in their life.  We’re no longer talking about our cars, our homes, our careers, our trips, and we’re no longer talking (thank God!) about what the celebrities are doing and saying.  Instead, we’re talking about relationships and the good that this person did in life.  We stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that death is real, and we’ve got a limited amount of time to show our love to those around us.

But anyway, there was a eulogy delivered by the deceased’s sister.  She chose the word “forgiving” to describe the deceased.   And when you think about it, isn’t that one of the highest compliments that you could give a person?  St. Faustina said that Christ’s mercy is the trait which shows his greatness beyond all else.

What words would we want to be spoken about our life?  What two or three adjectives would you want to be used to summarize who you have been, and what you have meant to those around you?

And now I have to show you this Chesterton poem that I found just the other day.  It’s called “A List.”  I was astonished to see that he once named his friends with adjectives too:

I know a friend, very strong and good.
He is the best friend in the world.
I know another friend, subtle and sensitive.
He is certainly the best friend on earth.
I know another friend: very quiet and shrewd,
there is no friend so good as he.
I know another friend, who is enigmatical and reluctant,
he is the best of all.
I know yet another: who is polished and eager,
he is far better than the rest.
I know another, who is young and very quick,
he is the most beloved of all friends.
I know a lot more and they are all like that.
Amen.

I think it’s rather nice.

But I also have to tell you what I saw online.

You see, this poem was quoted here and there, but what I saw was that it usually wasn’t quoted the way Chesterton wrote it.

In the first place, people changed at least one of these “he”s into “she”s.  Apparently it’s not acceptable for all his friends to be male, especially if he’s going to praise them.  I was appalled, but I guess if people are ready to change the words of Christ to make him sound politically-correct, then why would Chesterton be spared?  But I still protest, because at least with the Bible, you can easily cross-reference it with other versions.  With Chesterton’s work, most people don’t have access to a reputable version.

I don’t think a feminist would appreciate having the genders switched around on her writing.  If gender is negotiable in literature, then can we alter Patricia Irene Dunn’s phrase too?  The new version is, “A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle.”

It’s not right – whether it’s Chesterton or Jesus or Dunn.  Let’s deal with the words as written.

I wonder if the friend described in this poem knows about his unwanted gender reassignment, performed decades after his death.  Maybe he’s getting teased in heaven.  “Hey Edmund!  Check it out!  They’ve made you into a ‘she’!   “What?”  “Yeah, no joke; look right over here: ‘ . . . another friend, who is enigmatical and reluctant, she is the best of all.’  Har har har.”

It’s not right.  They should leave these men as intact males or not quote the poem at all.

But continuing this theme, there’s a second way that they ‘improve’ the poem, and I bet you know what it is.  Yes, they delete the last word, because it’s “Amen.”  That’s even worse.  The last word changes the entire mood and message of the poem!  It’s the punch-line, if you will.  Maybe the thought is that it’s just ‘one little word,’ just an unimportant and antiquated flourish at the end which can be clipped.  In that vein, maybe the editors of today will issue a revised version of the Ten Commandments; they’ll just remove a few inconvenient words.  The new version will be: Thou shalt take the name of your Lord in vain . . . Thou shalt steal . . . Thou shalt commit adultery . . .

You need to keep the ‘Amen’ because it’s a key to understanding the poem, and also the poet.  To understand Chesterton is to understand that he was serious when he said, “the aim of life is appreciation.”  This poem is an example of appreciation.   He values his friends, and he values these qualities in his friends.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When you see the word “Amen,” at the end, you understand that this is not just a list, or even a poem.  It’s a prayer too – a prayer of thanksgiving.

“A List” reminds us that we could make a similar list of adjectives.  We could ‘adjectivize’ the people in our lives based on their virtues.  We all have friends better than we deserve, who have traits worth admiring and emulating.   And it’s this last word of his poem, this word which is so easily overlooked and unsaid, which reminds us that we have someone to thank for having these people in our lives.

Thank you, God, for giving us such worthy companions for life’s journey!

Amen.

 

 

* SpiritedOne would like you to call her Veronica

Post 38

Bucket Lists: Reflections on Why Saints Don’t Have Them

Well of course I’ve got a long version!

It just takes longer, that’s all.  (I was hurrying!)

But at least you knew what I was thinking about.  And for a little while, you were thinking about it too.  I was here, and you were there, but we were both thinking about the same thing.  That was fun.  Internet technology really is amazing, isn’t it?

But then you were done.  You moved on; you started thinking about other things.  I know you did.  You had to.

Meanwhile, I was still, well, I was still over here, thinking about it and writing about it and thinking about how to write about it.  I’ve been sitting here like a newspaper journalist writing earnestly and eagerly – about last week’s top news-story.

But today I will say, “I’m done!  I’m done!  Hey everybody, I came up with something!  It’s ready!  Hello?  Anybody there?”

Yeah.

So anyway, it would be neat to see what you came up with, because maybe we all came up the same kind of thing.

Okay, go ahead, you first.  What do you think?

No really, I insist – this doesn’t always have to be about me and my thoughts, you know.

Go ahead.

 

[This is where I should type “Beat,” which I found out, means a moment of dead silence in a screenplay.]

 

 

Hello?

 

Beat.

 

Sigh.

Alright, since you’re still not here and I’m still not there and this isn’t a forum and there’s no place for comments, it looks like I’ve basically got everything all set up for another one of these one-way conversations, which, come to think of it, isn’t a conversation at all, but rather something more like a blog post.

(But did you notice? I now have a shiny new CONTACT page.  This means that if you ever, you know, wanted to write – just hypothetically speaking, of course – it would now be possible, in theory.  And I have to tell you, EfficientOne designed it so that you don’t have to decipher and retype one of those little codes to ‘prove you’re not a robot.’  Instead he told me that he created an extra field on the form, which is not visible to humans, but visible to robots.  When the robots fill in that field, something magical happens which destroys the message before it can go to my Inbox.  Isn’t that clever?  I thought it was, and that’s why I’m telling you, and I think it’s okay because the robots can’t hear us.)

So to get down to work, a ‘bucket-list’ is a list of things you would like to do before you ‘kick the bucket’ – before you die.  It has become somewhat fashionable to talk about one’s bucket-list.

“What’s on your bucket-list?” is how you ask it.  Then the person who answers says things like, “to climb Mount Everest, to write a screenplay and to own a pet giraffe.”  Something like that.

The idea is that everyone has a different bucket-list, and the goal here would be to come up with a cool list – be creative, be funny; that will show you’re original, unique, culturally relevant, and that you have zest for life.

The phrase has annoyed me since I first figured out what it meant, and recently I brought it up in conversation because I wanted help in putting my finger on why exactly it bothered me.  I turned to LoyalOne and said, “So what’s on your bucket-list?”  She said, “I want to be quoted on your blog!”

(So now I feel like a fairy Godmother – here’s my wand: “And you, my dear, shall also be at the ball! – I mean, the blog!  The blog!  You, my dear, shall be on the blog!”)

So if Q is: Why don’t saints have bucket-lists?

then my A is:

Saints don’t have bucket-lists because saints have better vision than the rest of us.  Their close-up vision is clearer, enabling them to see, better than we can, the excitement and beauty of the every day, and their distance vision is better, enabling them to see, better than we can, the goal and purpose of life.

To elaborate, saints don’t have bucket-lists because their focus isn’t on that one-time, almost-unrepeatable thrill.  Most bucket-lists are comprised of events that are beyond the every day, and beyond the average North American (let alone the average human being from another century or another part of the world) and that’s a huge problem with the entire bucket-list idea.

The phrase reinforces the not-so-subtle modern message that ordinary human life is boring – so in order to really define yourself and make your life special, you need to direct your life towards (or at least supplement it with) something EXCITING.  The phrase glorifies these fringe and superfluous activities, with the idea that they’re far more interesting to talk about and think about than the rest of your life, which must be dull because it’s repetitive and monotonous.

Some people enjoy writing Christmas newsletters (I do, and you’re not surprised to hear they’re getting longer every year and I compensate by shrinking font and margins), but in my opinion, a lot of people (not you, of course) approach them all wrong.  They sit down to write, and their thought-process is something like this: “Hmm, well, basically I went to work to earn enough to pay the bills, and then I paid them.  Yup.  Obviously I can’t write that because that’s really boring.  Hmm.  In November I got some dental work done, but that’s not really anything, even though it was as expensive as a small vacation.  Yeah, too bad I didn’t travel somewhere this year; then at least I’d have something EXCITING to write about.”

They underestimate the drama of their own daily life.  It is interesting.  Your daily life and your views are interesting because they’re so similar to mine!  And your daily life and your views are interesting because they’re so different from mine!  We’re exactly the same and we’re completely different – that’s enough entertainment right there, isn’t it?

The bucket-list notion proclaims that the ‘best’ parts of life are the non-repeatable, out-of-the ordinary events.  But the bucket-list idea is arguably more questionable than the newsletter full of travel destinations, because it’s not even a list of things that you’ve done or earned; it’s a list of things you’d like to do.  You get the gratification of talking about them, as if they ‘belong’ to you, without actually having to go through the trouble of doing them, not to mention the discovery that these thrills are usually not nearly as exciting as they were promoted as being.

In contrast, a saint focuses on the every day.  Does that sound boring?  It might, but this marvellous and strangely unpredictable terrain called ‘daily life’ is where all the real battles are fought, and won, and lost.  A saint faces the challenges of life head-on, and tries to improve, day by day, in all the virtues.  A new day is a new opportunity to live the way we’re supposed to live, to treat each other the way we’re supposed to treat each other, to do our duties the way we’re supposed to do them, to appreciate the gifts the way we should appreciate them, and so on.

WiseOne says that most good activities and behaviours are things that you must repeat, and they should continue through your whole life.  You never check them off your list.  “Patience, yup, done that, once.  Generosity?  Yup, did that too.”

Take self-control for example: will today be the day we wake up on time, avoid the second chocolate-chip cookie and smile nicely at the irritating co-worker?   Chesterton says it’s the little battles that we keep losing.  He says that man “seems to be capable of great virtues but not small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper.” (Autobiography, Ch. XI)  The saints face each day with fresh hope, and try to get better at becoming the person they were meant to be.  As WiseOne says, life’s focus is more properly put on behaviours and habits, not events. Living each day to the fullest, experiencing God’s sudden and startling moments of grace, and trying to do your best – well, that is quite the challenge.  Not dull.

The daily repetition provides new chances to get it right, like the movie Groundhog Day.  We are really so dense and so stubborn that we need all these chances to get it right.  The saying is, ‘only the good die young’ and I’m sure there’s truth in that  – some people cooperate with Goodness so well so early in life that God takes them to the ‘next level’ a lot sooner than he takes the rest of us.

My point is that the saints have a better perspective.  Their hopes are not about escaping to a different world, where the normal challenges are absent.  That’s a modern mindset.  The modern mindset says, ‘Jump on a plane, go to a place where you don’t have to cook your own meals or go to work.  Escape the alarm clock and the co-workers!  That’s the life!’  The modern mind-set suggests that what is ordinary is dull and worth avoiding.  Therefore, early retirement is equated with heaven.  But the saintly outlook is entirely different.  This was one of the main points of Chesterton’s story The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Trying to be good is a righteous adventure in and of itself.  As he said in a different story, “Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world.”  (The Club of Queer Trades, Chapter II).  He was fighting the myth that ‘good people’ live some sort of bubble-life, where everything is easy and really dull, while everybody else, and especially those who ‘break free’ from rules of morality, gets to have adventures, thrills and excitement.  The myth is that such liberated people understand the full reality of life – its sufferings and its delights – far better than the ‘cloistered’ saints do.

But the truth is that there was no saint who was not pushed to his very limits in his battle against self and in coping with hardship.  Every saint’s life is chock-full of drama (as represented by the adventures in the Man Who Was Thursday); some of it is obvious and everybody knows about it – such as being put in jail or being publicly ridiculed – but some of it is hidden and can barely be discussed – the tears splash down when nobody is looking.

Yet a saint does prefer, in general, not to draw attention to himself:

We might even say that the one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men . . . A saint is long past any desire for distinction; he is the only superior man who has never been a superior person.

— G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. V

In contrast, many of the things on a bucket-list are about being at the head of the pack, and being extraordinary or superior in a worldly sense.

Turning to the idea of repetition or monotony in itself, Chesterton said that repetition is the joyful pattern of nature.  Uninterrupted rhythm (such a tricky word to spell!) is a sign of vitality and life; it’s broken rhythm which is a sign of dysfunction and death:

[T]he repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition . . . the grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood.  The sun would made me see him if he rose a thousand times.  The recurrence of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption.  It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork . . .

The sun rises every morning . . it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.  His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.  The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy . . . Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon . . . He has the eternal appetite of infancy.”

— Orthodoxy, Chapter IV

The saints can exult in what seems to be, at first glance, a boring monotony because saints are almost never bored.  They don’t look for (or to be more accurate, they don’t expect) amusement all the time and everywhere like a spoiled child or a bored millionaire, because they already have it.  They find happiness in the many blessings of each day.  When people talk about meeting a saint, they notice that these people are so incredibly and unusually attentive; saints know how to fully receive other people.  They know how to fully welcome and appreciate each moment of life.  St. Pope John Paul II liked to wake up early so that he could see the sun rise.

This quotation of Chesterton (which incidentally happens to be the very quotation that I was looking for in preparation for Post 36) says that if you want to say ‘everyone has a right to be happy’ then you absolutely must differentiate between the people who are happy with life’s “normal conditions” and the people who feel entitled to experience every experience under the sun:

A man has a right to a reasonable chance of happiness, if he can get happiness out of normal conditions – out of human companionship and daylight and decently regular meals . . . But it is a very different business if the pursuit of happiness is to be understood as anything that will make a bored person happy.  It is very different if it means . . . unlimited liberty in thrills.   By that conception we are bound to grant to him not merely what he ought to have, but practically anything that he has not got.  We are bound to yield, not even to his discontent, but merely to his curiosity.  If he cannot enjoy his daily bread, he must be indulged in every kind of cookery up to the point of cannibalism . . . It is hard to see on what authority rests this divine right of experiment.

— Illustrated London News, September 20, 1924

Chesterton is identifying an attitude of entitlement here.  And I think it’s precisely that kind of attitude which animates the discussion about bucket-lists.   Doesn’t it remind you of that other list that we used to make?  We used to make a list of all the Christmas presents we wanted.  Have we grown out of that?  Probably not.  We probably still want A, B and C.  We don’t realize how many things we want, because now that we’re grown-ups, we do our own shopping, and we don’t even have to leave the house to do it.  Almost instant gratification.  Our desires are satisfied all year round and we don’t have to wait for our birthday or Christmas.   But the bucket-list is not much more mature: instead of collecting objects, we’ve decided we want to collect experiences.   But it’s just as shallow, and generally, just as selfish.  It’s not just a bucket-list, it’s YOUR bucket-list, and YOU’RE going to put in what YOU want.  And since it’s set into the terminology of what you want to do before you die, it sounds like a pretty important list.  You’ve got one life, and you’re going to make sure that this life contains those 12.5 minutes of pleasure, doing whatever.

In contrast, a saint isn’t focused on collecting experiences, checking off a list, or emptying a bucket or filling a bucket.  (And that’s another thing: it’s a phrase with two highly visual elements, a bucket and a list, but these images just don’t mesh.  It sounds like a metaphor that is pre-mixed, i.e., Frankenstein  from the beginning, and I must say, this aspect contributed significantly to my brain-static.)

No, a saint is not someone pushing his grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store of life: “Hmm, I think I’ll take a couple of those, and hey, that experience looks intriguing, maybe one of those.  Ooh, now that one looks appetizing.”  No, a saint is more like a person out on a moonlit night, holding hands with the one he loves.  A saint is in a relationship, and is focused on what he can do for his beloved.  His beloved is Christ, and the saint wants to give, not collect.

And if the saint happens to receive, then he accepts such consolations and gifts with delight and gratitude.  He doesn’t check these items off his list, because he wasn’t keeping a list in the first place.  Does a man who gets married enter the relationship with a list?  Three years into the marriage, he says, “You know sweetheart, on my bucket-list for this marriage was one and a half children, a clean house and good cooking.  You’re letting me down on item number two.”  She says, “Well, on my bucket-list for this marriage, there was a trip to Paris and becoming a bowling champion before I turned 28, and you’re getting in my way.”  Can you imagine?  Whose list would get priority?

So a saint doesn’t have a bucket-list, because relationships aren’t about bucket-lists.  He’s thinking about the will of God, not his own will.  The saint trusts that God’s plan is going to be better than his own plan, or, as LoyalOne put it, “God’s bucket-list for you is going to be better than yours.”  It’s not that saints don’t make plans – they should – and it’s not that saints don’t have hopes and dreams – they almost always do – but it’s that they have matured enough to have a broader vision; they are ready to put their own plans in second place, after whatever is ultimately chosen by God.   Christ didn’t say, “Frankly speaking, Papa, being tortured to death tonight isn’t on my bucket-list, so if you don’t mind, perhaps we can revisit this later?”  He put his own desires in second place.  Earthly desires, if they are wholesome, are legitimate, but they can’t become the ultimate aim of our lives; they have to take their position in the proper scheme of things.  We shouldn’t be crushed if every desire isn’t satisfied, and things don’t turn out exactly the way our agenda had outlined.

The bucket-list idea presumes that we’ve got a certain level of control over the circumstances of our lives that we simply do not have.  We don’t have that level of control, nor should we.  We’re not gods.  We’re creatures.  We don’t run the universe and decide how everything is going to go.  So sure, have wishes (and if your life’s goal is to be on my here-today-gone-tomorrow blog, then I’ll whip out my trusty magic wand), but please, don’t have bucket-lists.

Nevertheless, if you were to insist that everyone does have a bucket-list, in the sense that everyone has something that they want, then I’d have to concede the point.  Of course a saint wants.   He wants so badly that he’s identified by what he wants.  You’re right, as usual.  Saints are experts at wanting; the intensity with which they want can be compared only with a man who is madly in love with a person or an idea: ready to give his life.

So in that sense, a saint does have a bucket, but there’s no list anywhere near it.  Instead, it’s more like that bucket or basket in the story of St. Paul’s escape, which had a person in it.  But in this case, the person is Christ himself.  The saints want someone, not something.  The saints want Christ; they want Christ in their bucket and they look forward to heaven because that’s when they will have him most fully.  About St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton wrote, “He knew better than most of us that there is but one purpose in this life, and it is one that is beyond this life.”  (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. IV)

There’s a powerful passage in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.  He describes the famous, strange and mystical moment when the saint heard the voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in the church of St. Dominic in Naples.  Christ was offering this faithful servant his choice of life’s gifts.  The bucket of life, so to speak, was presented to St. Thomas so that he could choose.  Chesterton says that the arms of Christ, stretched out on the cross were like a symbol of bounty, of the largeness of the gift:

[W]hen the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and the west, to the ends of the earth and to the very extremes of existence.  They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures.

— Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. V

Chesterton reminds us that St. Thomas “was a man who could want things, as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom” and he points out that there were things that St. Thomas might have wanted.  “He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty, or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels; or any one of the thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe.”

But you know how the story goes.  The saint, “lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion; ‘I will have Thyself.’ ”

In other words, Christianity is humble and shockingly bold at the same time, enabling mere mortals to demand from God that he give them Himself.

And of course, since it is always the case that Christ already wants and loves all of us infinitely more intensely than we can love and want him (limited creatures that we are), this means that the moment we begin to reciprocate, we’re headed for a match made in heaven.  In other words, he was waiting for us to want him, like the humble Beast in the story of Beauty and the Beast.  He showers us with gifts and he provides reminders and hints of his hidden and silent presence, all in a gentlemanly effort to capture our attention without forcing our attention.

In other words, Christ is hoping to be included on that bucket-list of ours, somewhere between the giraffe we’re going to own and that screenplay we’re going to write.

Beat.

 

Post 37

'Bucket List': A Thought

Saints don’t have ‘bucket lists.’

There.

That’s it.

That’s my whole post.

Nineteen words.

Shortest post ever!

Ha ha!