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 The sentiment seems almost out-of-date now, and you’ll rarely see it for sale in the stores anymore.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

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.

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!




* 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?”


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.]








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.



Post 37

'Bucket List': A Thought

Saints don’t have ‘bucket lists.’


That’s it.

That’s my whole post.

Nineteen words.

Shortest post ever!

Ha ha!

Post 36

Our Daily Bread: Reflections on Bounty

I wasn’t trying to test out the theory of gravity when I knocked my little laptop to the floor the other day – smack – but gravity is apparently still going strong in this corner of the universe.  The little laptop, however, isn’t really going at all anymore, in any universe.  Normally I blog using that laptop, but now I must use this desktop computer – which feels kind of like using the telephone bolted to the wall.  I had started a little (I mean, they always start out little) post about friendship, which was quickly morphing into reflections on moral intelligence, but I might never see that again.  Oh well, no matter.

I even resorted to writing a letter last week in longhand.  It was kind of neat, writing without access to a backspace key.  It was kind of like a Pontius Pilate experience: “What I have written, I have written.” It may be bad, but hey, it’s indelible.  That tactile quality is interesting.

I’ve heard that cursive writing is being phased out of schools now.  It’s such a shame.   “They know not what they do,” turning their back on centuries of cursive handwriting, which is elegant and highly efficient at the same time.  (It can also be extremely fast.)  The thing is, if the students don’t learn how to write it, they won’t know how to read it.  This means that, in the future, if someone comes across a letter that you wrote seven years ago, or some handwritten recipe wedged into a cookbook, it will look like a quaint artifact, written in some archaic code.  We’ll have a new layer of illiteracy on top of all the current ones.   And all the brain development which occurs with the act of cursive handwriting won’t happen.

Is our modern educational system’s only contribution to society the abandonment of everything which has been painstakingly preserved and passed down all these generations?  The ball is being dropped – really, really dropped – but since it’s a metaphorical ball, there’s not even a floor to stop the downward plunge.  Our educational system is a wrecking ball, if you ask me, acting as though anything that was done in the past must be outdated and irrelevant.  Schools ‘teach’ children to use those touchy touch-screens, but the children were pretty adept at touching already.  “All thumbs” isn’t just an expression nowadays, it’s an educational goal.

So now they snub cursive writing.  I was actually aghast when I heard the news, but I should not have been.  I should have seen it coming.

This is ‘progress.’


It makes me want to break out the ink pen.  Pass the ink jar, will you?

That era wasn’t very long ago, you know.  There are people walking around right now who remember using it, who remember their own gravity tests with bottles of ink – clunk, gurgle, drip.  Talk about tactile!

And speaking of ink and ink pens, I have a quotation for you.  It’s where I was planning to begin this post, so you can just ignore the past 500+ words as a digression.

It’s a Chesterton quotation, written in his early twenties, when he had finally rescued himself from his own extreme and paralyzing scepticism, but before he was a practicing Christian.  (He says in Orthodoxy, Chapter VI, “I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen, and I cannot understand any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.”) This might be a poem or a literal description of his behaviour at that age or both:

You say grace before meals
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

And I hope you like it, because I must tell you that although this quotation surfaced easily enough, the exact source did not and the looking cost me more time than I spent writing my whole first blog post.  It all started when I couldn’t find a certain quotation which I had read in my Gilbert magazine (not that one above) because I couldn’t find the magazine itself and even St. Anthony wasn’t as prompt as usual.  So when I looked for a substitute quotation online, I found this one, but nobody would or could say where it came from, other than, “G.K. Chesterton,” which is not a big enough clue.  After all, the man probably wrote more than he weighed, and he weighed a lot (though I know that paper is heavy; it’s one of the trinity of things – paper, water, soil – always a lot heavier than you expect) so that doesn’t exactly narrow down the search.

So after almost an hour of this, poking my head into tons of places that had this quotation (including Protestant writings of all kinds and even a Buddhist blog), I decided to email the American Chesterton Society.  I thought, who knows, maybe some kind soul will help me out.  And indeed, moments later I got a reply, from Dale Ahlquist himself; I was really impressed.  That’s worth the price of membership right there.

So I’m happy to give you the source.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Notebook, as quoted in Maisie Ward’s biography, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Chapter 5

So now you know.

Chesterton is amazing.  He stretches his arms out really wide and embraces the whole world.  He proclaims ‘thank you’ so freshly, so eloquently, and so meaningfully, that we can hear the echoes of his gratitude decades later.

That quotation is just one of many instances where he rejoices in the bounty of human experience.  There are so many things to enjoy, and that is the way it’s supposed to be.  To live fully is to welcome this bounty and to appreciate every endeavour that we are able to be involved in, and every natural and man-made part of the world that we are able to experience, and all the senses that we are able to use, knowing that it easily could have happened that we didn’t exist at all.  It’s all a gift, is his point.

Chesterton thanks God for existence, and reminds us to do the same.

I invented a rudimentary and mystical theory of my own.  It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting.  Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.

The object . . . was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.

 – Autobiography, Chapter IV

Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light.  Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius; and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been.  To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.

 – Orthodoxy, Chapter IV

And indeed, instead of greeting existence as the surprise and unmerited gift that it is, we act as though our birth were somewhat inevitable and expected.

Now on some level, this is true – we were each meant to be here; God knew of our existence from all eternity.

But on the other hand, if you do any genealogical research into your ancestors, you will see how many strange things needed to happen in order to ensure your birth, and how unpredictable it all was.  The more you know, the more you see how unlikely it was that you would have been conceived in the first place.  This man had to travel to that city (he wasn’t planning to stay, is always how it goes) and fall in love with this woman, and late in life they had a sixth child that they weren’t expecting, and that turned out to be your ancestor.  Every one of us has, in our ancestry, a variation on that story.  And sometimes the circumstances are even stranger.  One of my ancestors had four wives (one at a time, I assure you) and it was the fourth marriage (to a widow) which produced my ancestor!  That’s a lot of marrying and dying and remarrying and birthing that ‘needed’ to happen in order for me to be sitting here at this computer which is bolted to the wall.

And I protest when I hear someone say, “Some people shouldn’t have children,” because if we eliminated every person in our own ancestral line who wasn’t ‘qualified,’ then who would exist?  (I suppose that’s what some environmentalists would want, but then they wouldn’t exist either, so they wouldn’t be able to appreciate the beauty of nature untainted by humanity).  The same goes for large families; we’re all here because someone had a third child or a ninth.  Do we really begrudge the existence of that ancestor of ours?

And this is not to mention the scourges of contraception, sterilization and contraception.  Everyone born since about 1969 is truly a survivor; there are, sadly, many people who aren’t even with us – many people who never got a chance to taste life.  And some of us were ‘accidents.’  Whew – that was close!

Chesterton thanks God for the body, and reminds us to do the same:

. . . and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.  Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?

 – Orthodoxy

And indeed, we’re supposed to accept and appreciate our bodies; we’re made of body and soul (“We are Catholics, and as such, we are concerned with body and soul” Chesterton said somewhere.)  This means allowing the body its ‘feasts’ – its legitimate and wholesome pleasures, including food of all kinds, liquor, sex, dancing, running, singing, music, theatre and so on.  These are wholesome and desirable gifts which we were meant to enjoy.  (Yes, of course, I’ll talk about limits; I’m Catholic, after all).

Everyday life is not dreary.  We’re designed so that even those activities which we need to perform in order to stay alive bring physical pleasure.  A glass of water when you’re thirsty, a warm bowl of noodles when you’re hungry, a rest when you’re weary – these things are incredible.   It could have been otherwise – what if eating relieved hunger but wasn’t actually enjoyable?  But it’s not like this at all: the act of eating is a satisfying one, and the earth is covered with things to eat in all flavours, shapes, colours and textures and interesting ways to combine them.  That’s food, but even in the tiniest, most inconsequential concerns of our body, the same thing is repeated: scratching that mosquito bite on your ankle feels good; sliding your hands under the cool pillow at night feels good.  If evolution is responsible for shaping us this way, then I thank the Creator for evolution!

I think the Catholic faith is really joyful in this way.  Last week I attended a funeral, and I can’t remember being at a more beautiful one – it was a solemn requiem Mass, said in Latin.  I couldn’t help but noticing how it engaged all the senses.  I was looking at everything (probably should have been praying) and it was very impressive.  I watched the way they moved the censure, the incense holder, from a theatrical point of view.  The priest’s sleeves, which were made of voluminous folds of pleated white fabric that ended in neat cuffs at the wrist, emerged from special slits in his robes, which were black with gold trim.  He therefore perfectly matched the black velvet cloth draped over the casket; this cloth had a wide golden line running the length of it, intersected by another line running the width of it: a large cross.  And did I say? There was incense in the air, and the altar servers bowed in unison with the priest.  Everything was just so.  StrongOne sang beautifully in Latin and we knelt when it was time to receive the Eucharist.  It was just so full.  The reception afterwards was bountiful too, and the relaxed and happy mood of those attending (I’ve heard Christian post-funeral receptions are noticeably cheerier than non-Christian ones, and from what I’ve seen this is true) made it feel downright festive.  Strange word, I realize, but that’s how it was, and you know, I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Now of course, Catholicism is a religion of balance, and Chesterton said that proper appreciation and gratitude for these sensory experiences involves the idea of restraint.  So with respect to liquor, he says, “we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” (Orthodoxy, Ch. IV), and with respect to sex, he says “Keeping to one woman is a small price to pay for so much as seeing one woman.  To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. IV)

The paradox of the saint who loves and appreciates the world yet denies himself bodily pleasures is in a special class, and these sacrifices make sense when you consider that such saints are motivated by a greater passion: they are in love.  You could say that they are ‘madly in love.’  St. Francis gave up everything in the way that a selfless knight lays his life at the feet of his beloved.  He is, in fact, ‘wilder’ than the average person, more alive, more enthusiastic, more on fire, and that is why the saint wants to do these things; he almost can’t help himself in proving his love and devotion.  (But of course, we’re called to be saints no matter what our vocation.)

And without the motivation of love for Christ, or at least a religious motive of some kind, Chesterton makes the point that physical renunciations are silly, and even morally dangerous.  In those cases, the body becomes an end in itself; people make an idol of bodily health, hygiene or beauty, and the result is a cramped and self-absorbed personality, and possibly a narcissistic one.

Chesterton thanks God for nature, and reminds us to do the same.

For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset

 – K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter V

When it comes to nature, here I also notice how it fits us so well.  Darwin said it’s all random, but why does so much of it coincidentally look so beautiful to our eyes?  I suppose you could say it’s some mathematic rhythmic principle that matches the wavelengths of our brain.  I don’t know.  But anyway, we’re in general agreement as to what is beautiful (just look at the photo collections circulated on the internet, as I’ve said) and we all recoil at the same kind of things: that insect with too many legs is just, well, icky.

Oops – that’s me, not Chesterton.  I suppose he could write positively about even that.

(But really!  A person who keeps a pet tarantula is not mentally okay.)

Anyway, my point is that the world around us really fits us; it suits us.  It impresses us and it amuses us.  (“The strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed, in all art, is really connected with their otherness, their objectivity” says Chesterton in Chapter VIII of Saint Thomas) I happened to be thinking about zoos recently and I remembered how years ago I tried to choose ‘my favourite animal’ while I walked around it.  I liked the panther and the lion and the donkey who looked at me with big brown eyes. Then at the end I saw the zebra, standing there being just so, well, striped!  He looked like someone had done him up like that as a joke.  I think I laughed out loud.  (And since then I’ve seen pictures of an animal that looks even funnier, a mixed-up animal called an okapi.) There is so much in the animal world that is just so humorous – like the mating rituals of dolphins: the gentleman-dolphins jump into the air hoping the lady-dolphins will notice the big rock in their mouths.  I mean, it’s just so funny!  And nature speaks to us too.  It seems to speak in symbols: the soaring birds seem to represent angels or goodness while the disgusting eyeless creatures that live at the pitch-black bottom of some oceans or in the recesses of a cave seem to represent (though I know they too are ‘good’) evil and demons and all the ugliness that is evil.

Fortunately, most ugly creatures like to lurk in dark and hidden places, and so we don’t have to see them very often.  But the collection of beautiful creatures and beautiful places is so gigantic that it’s almost disheartening: how can a person ever experience all the wonder of all these places?  The ocean, the desert, the forests, the canyons, the icebergs; it’s too much!  The bounty is almost overwhelming, and that’s the natural world.

Turning to what is man-made, Chesterton praises all these things too, and reminds us to do the same.

[E]verything, had we the eyes which God meant to give us, is amazing – the door-scraper, the door-knocker, the umbrella stand.

 – “Beauty in the Commonplace,” New York Times, May 27, 1928

He praises God for every leisure activity and every human occupation under the sun.

The idea that life in an office or a shop is dull is an idea that can only exist in dull people. Every shop is full of the terrible gold and purple of the human character, and the more a man is a poet, the more content he ought to be as a grocer’s assistant.

 – “On Believing in Oneself,” Daily News, March 10, 1906

And on this topic, I want to bring in something I read yesterday:

Another very useful, practical principle is the following: If I am not capable of great things, I will not become discouraged, but I will do the small things!  Sometimes, because we are unable to do great things, heroic acts, we neglect the small things that are available to us and which are, moreover, fruitful for our spiritual progress and are such a source of joy . . .

 – Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Chapter 18

He doesn’t say what these ‘small things’ are, but I think they can be all the duties that are associated with our current state in life.  DiligentOne says that although the idea of ‘doing your little duty of the moment’ is familiar, she has lately been thinking about the idea of the “little” duty, and the idea of “of the moment.”  These tiny, seemingly insignificant things of daily life are really important: if we do them with love and attention, they are, as Fr. Philippe says, fruitful for our spiritual progress.  And, interestingly, as he says, they are “such a source of joy.”

And indeed, if daily life is approached properly, it is a source of joy.  Personally, I’ve found there’s sort of an inverse relationship with these things; the more you dread some little task, the more rewarding it is when it’s finished – and I don’t think it’s just a matter of the relief that it’s over with, but it’s something like that biblical reference to the food that starts by tasting bitter but which ends tasting sweet.  There’s something mysterious here about our daily bread.

I am tempted to go and find a quotation from St. Josemaria Escriva, who said so many good things about the value of work (it’s not called Opus Dei or “the Work” for nothing), but I see that this post is becoming the longest I’ve written.  So instead, I’ll just mention that Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden before anything went wrong.  Take the story literally or take it as an allegory, but in either case, it suggests that work was part of the gift that they were given, and it was part of the bounty and the happiness that they enjoyed.  Ecclesiastes says all is futility and chasing after the wind, but the act of doing one’s best at one’s work is something solid.  I paraphrase, obviously.

But back to Chesterton, I am moved by the largeness of his outlook.  He rejoices in everything and is entirely and utterly grateful for it all.  This poem from his notebook, called “Evening,” is appreciation for existence, the body, and nature in five short lines:

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

Here’s another one from the same notebook, about appreciation for friendship, all human endeavours and abilities, and nature:

Praised be God for all sides of life,
for friends, lovers, art, literature, knowledge, humour, politics,
and for the little red cloud away there in the west—

And I like this one too, from the same notebook:

Give me a little time,
I shall not be able to appreciate them all;
If you open so many doors
And give me so many presents, O Lord God

Later in life, long after he wrote these things, he discovered that Catholicism contained all the impulses of gratitude and appreciation that he had cherished, and the reasons for the bounty, and the reasons for the occasional restrictions on partaking in this bounty. Catholic doctrine also united and explained all the phases of his life, including the dark phases (“these doctrines seem to link up my whole life from the beginning, as no other doctrines could do”).  He says this about the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholicism in general:

Now nobody will begin to understand the Thomist philosophy, or indeed the Catholic philosophy, who does not realize that the primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World. Everything else follows a long way after that, being conditioned by the Fall or the vocation of heroes . . .”

 – Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter IV

In praise of St. Thomas, he says

He was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person enormously interested in everything . . . he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things.  It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One.  I do not mean things to eat or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about, and especially things to prove, to experience and to know.

 – Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter V

Chesterton compares Catholicism with the other religions of the world, and says that the religion of St. Thomas Aquinas is unique in this way:

[It is] vitally and vividly alone in declaring that life is a living story, with a great beginning and a great close; rooted in the primeval joy of God and finding its fruition in the final happiness of humanity; opening with the colossal chorus in which the sons of God shouted for joy, and ending in that mystical comradeship, shown in a shadowy fashion in those ancient words that move like an archaic dance; ‘For His delight is with the sons of men.’

 – Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter IV

I cannot begin an adequate discussion of those difficult parts of our daily life, but suffice it to say that they are also part of the gift, and the saints who have really understood things, have embraced suffering too.  As a matter of fact, they savour it like the young children that a Sister of Providence told me about, who fought over the heads of the fish, wanting to devour the eyes and the brain, while our modern white-bread world shudders at the thought.

We reject suffering and so it’s startling to see the way the saints accepted suffering and welcomed it and praised it. Back to the fish analogy, we know too little about the discoveries of Weston A. Price, and so if eating such things is not a part of our life experience, we’re rather repulsed: “Do they really enjoy even that?” But the saints respond, “Hey – are you kidding?  This is the best part!”

Ultimately, I think all the bounty that surrounds us in our daily life is pointing to something else; it shows forth the nature of our God, whose goodness pours out in such abundance upon all his creatures, and it’s a peek at the bounty which awaits us on the other side.

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him

 – 1 Corinthians 2:19

My goodness: I’m past 4000 words.  My ink well is almost empty, so I had better stop here.

Post 35

The Air in August: Reflections on Aging

On August tenth, the air was different.  It carried the scent of fall.

Yet it’s supposed to be summer!  It’s the second half of summer holidays, and everything is so perfectly lush and green and full. The sun is shining on the people at the festivals and the nights can feel hot.  But I see: it’s a ruse, an illusion.  So I concluded, by the time my walk was done, that August is sort of a false month.  August is a middle-aged woman dying her hair.

Give me October instead, when everything is fading in earnest, and going out with a bang: fireworks everywhere.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t criticize any month.  (And you’re also thinking that I shouldn’t alienate hair-dying readers either – yes, yes, but I’ll get to that too.) It seems ungrateful, I suppose.

And you, being rational, will surely argue, at the Tribunal of Fair Criticism, that August is the month of fullness, the month of fruition, the month of the Assumption and the birthday month for one-twelfth of the world.

You would be right, of course.

But for now, I smell the air, and it puts me in the mood of Qoheleth: “This also is futility and a striving after the wind.”  (Ecclesiastes)

I’m prepared to admit that my prejudice against August is irrational (if all prejudices are irrational then I suppose that’s redundant), but I take comfort in the fact that Chesterton’s wife was opposed to the moon.  And besides, if you can have a favorite month, then why can’t you have a month that you dislike?  That’s what I’d tell the judge at the Tribunal.  It’s a somewhat persuasive argument?  Or here’s another one: a person cannot control what or whom they like or dislike, so if I dislike the smell of autumn in the summer, then it’s just the way I’m wired.  Is that any better?  That one’s in keeping with the distinction which I’ve heard, to the effect that Christians are commanded to love – a matter of the will – but not commanded to like – a matter of who-knows-what.  And of course this all reminds me of Chesterton’s quotation, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

But I’m actually quite open-minded about the issue, as you’ll see from the following: I, the Mostly-Anonymous Blogger who dislikes August, hereby declare, in the spirit of Tolerance for All Months, that in the highly improbable event of my extended relocation, planned or unplanned, to another part of the world where the length of summer exceeds 12.75 weeks, that I will generously and magnanimously suspend my dislike of August.  I further declare that I am prepared to substitute, or to consider substituting, without excessive and unreasonable delay, my aforementioned dislike of August for dislike of whichever month looks lush but smells otherwise.

So you see, I leave room for negotiation.

Turning to other critical and pressing world issues, I’m not sure where I stand on hair-dying anymore.  I used to be opposed, but exposure to wise women who do it has made me wonder whether they rightly do it to please their husbands, along the lines of Post 13.  On the other hand, VeraciousOne, who is entirely elegant, doesn’t do it, saying “It’s about honesty.”

And have you heard?  Gray is the new blond.  The hairdresser showed me a little collection of hair swatches in shades of gray (now there’s a phrase that has gone up in flames – of hellfire, I suppose); she said the blue-gray one is particularly popular.  Young people are dying their hair ‘granny gray’ just to show how very hip they are.

Hey, maybe they’ve read Chesterton, who wrote a story where the villain, “the wickedest man in England,” is described, in part, like this: “his hair, which was largely grey, was curled with the instinct of one who appreciated the gradual beauty of grey and silver.”  (The Club of Queer Trades)  I liked that.

But even if gray hair is in style, aging itself is very unfashionable these days.  And I can understand why.  Our culture idolizes the health and beauty of youth, and is not willing to sacrifice these things for the wisdom and experience of the aged.  Being young is cool, and being old is cool to the extent that it imitates being young.  The senior who participates in the marathon is cool; the senior who has a walker is not cool.  That wealthy old golfer is given respect, but it’s not because of his age; it’s because he’s a good tipper and his Lexus is parked outside the country club.  Take away his money and people won’t laugh at his jokes anymore.  Contrast this with other cultures or even our own culture a few generations ago: respect for elders, whether they were healthy or wealthy or not, was a reality.

But above and beyond all this, being old nowadays can be really depressing.  It’s considered an unthinkable burden for a family to live with elderly relatives, and therefore, care (if it can be called that) of the aged is left to institutions and their overworked staff.  The poor go to the grim seniors’ residence, and the rich go to the place with the plush carpets and the chandelier in the dining room.  Welcome to the rest of your life.

A few weeks ago, I was a captive audience for a television, and I was amazed to see that almost every second commercial was for a wearable device which, at the press of a button, would connect you to some call centre, aka Big Brother, who would alert the medical authorities in the event that you had a medical emergency.  There were quite a few Orwellian companies that you could choose from.  The job of the commercials is to make it look all normal and sensible, but the popularity of these devices is sad proof of the isolation that so many seniors experience, daily.  They live unvisited for days and weeks and months at a time.  It must be painful and demoralizing.  This is where ‘independence’ has brought our society.

So it is no wonder that our pleasure-oriented culture would rather not think about aging, nor its even less-welcome cousin, Sister Death, as St. Francis of Assisi called it.  A person might admit, grudgingly, that he is aging, but death is for other people, not for him.  I’m too young for that; I’m too healthy for that; I’m too busy for that.

And as a result, we’ve come up with a few convenient lies to tell ourselves about aging.  I’m thinking of those little phrases that somehow get started and then get circulated so often that they start seeming true, even though they’re stupid.  My concern is that the more we accept these phrases, the stupider we get as a culture.

I’m thinking of: “You’re only as old as you feel,” or, “Age is just a number.”

Give me a break.

(Now I haven’t heard you saying it, so don’t take this personally.  Instead, view it as the random rantings of a person who has the audacity to disparage August and triangles and round buildings.)

In the first place, you must notice that nobody who is young, let’s say 24 or under, says these things.

(I choose 24 because when you turn 25, you’ll probably notice that you are ‘a quarter of a century’ and it may occur to you that the birthdays are going to keep coming, and will bring you to – shudder – 30.)

Indeed, this phrase is invariably said by people past their prime, who believe that they are unique in their outlook and approach to life.  Unlike those other people, who are old and inactive, they feel young.  So this is the first problem with it: nearly EVERYONE feels young.  Or to put it another way, nearly everyone FEELS young, on the inside.

Who feels old on the inside?  Do you look at an 82-year-old woman and think, “Now there’s someone who feels old”?  If you did, you’d be wrong. She doesn’t feel any different, inside, than she did when she was 24.  Just ask her.  I dare you.  Go around asking everyone how old they feel, and I bet you won’t find any who feel much different than they did decades ago. We look out at the world with the same eyes we always did, and we think with the same brain.  We acknowledge the decline in eyes and brain, but we feel largely unchanged in who we are on a deeper level.

That 82-year-old woman is just as surprised as you would be if you woke up one morning to find that you had aged 49 years while you were asleep.  She’s caught off guard by the rapid and sudden decline in her abilities and appearance.  She has laugh lines when she’s sad, and frown lines even when she’s happy. “My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain,” said W.H. Auden.

I like the lines of that nostalgic song:

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me?

– “Those Were the Days” (songwriter Gene Raskin)

No, I think the people who feel old on the inside are the exception, not the rule.  Those of us who feel like we were born middle-aged (or in the Middle Ages) are outliers.  But even so, we felt 40 then, and we feel 40 now and will probably always feel 40.

Our chronological aging does not affect that deep interior part of us which is timeless, which is beyond time, which is eternal.   We feel young because, not surprisingly, an eternal people never would get old.

So there’s an aspect of reality reflected in denying and defying aging, which is pretty much what these expressions encourage.

But instead of getting to a truthful place which can be reached with a consideration of a little bit of theology, our society scoffs at such ‘unreasonable’ notions and goes on to say things which are ridiculous, like “you’re only as old as you feel.”

Let’s be sensible: your age is not about how you feel.  Your age is about math – counting, to be specific.  You start on the date of your birth (or, like the Koreans used to, you acknowledge the time in the womb by starting a year earlier than the date of birth), and then you add the days that have elapsed since then.  It’s kind of beautiful in its logic, isn’t it?

Let’s not be relativistic about those things which we should not be.  Sure, if you want to call yourself an artist, go ahead, I won’t argue.  (I remember when a fellow teenager said to me that if you don’t identify yourself as an artist, people will say, “Wow, you’re a good draw-er.”)  And if you want to call yourself a writer, go ahead!  (I know you’re just a blogger though.)

But there are limits to this game of make-believe, I hope.

Or are we such lovers of relativism that we would say that what is objectively true shall be subordinate to what we feel?  My mom is a cat and my dad is a cat, and my birth certificate used to say I am a cat, but I’ve had it changed because lately I’ve been feeling like a dog.


My birth certificate says that I was born in 1901, but trust me, I really do feel very young.  Contact Vital Statistics to change the year to 2001.  You must play along with me because I make my own truth about myself.  I feel young, and if you were paying attention, you would see that I dress like the young person I am.  Or could it be that you failed to notice the strategically-placed holes in my jeans?  And my hair: you noticed, I hope, that I am sporting the very latest shade of granny gray?  

Ah, you say, settle down, it’s just an expression.

No, I won’t!  I won’t settle down!  I am determined to have my tantrum right here and right now and waaaaaaa!  Who says I have to be mature?  Who dares stop me if I want to be 2 years old?  That’s how I feel!  How dare you tell me, you intolerant counting person, that I am not 2?

I WANT to be 2.

So I am.

So there.


Welcome to my own personal world of make-believe.  You have to play along.  If you don’t, well, that just proves you’re a meanie.

And lest you think I exaggerate, I see references on the internet to a person’s ‘health age.’  With almost no effort, I found the following quotation:

Have you ever heard a phrase along the lines of “30 is the new 40”? Such statements are an excellent illustration of a simple fact – namely, that the details on your birth certificate don’t have to dictate your physical and mental state. Instead, it is your “health age” that can determine your overall health and energy level. Whatever ideas you may have of what it means to be 40, 50 or beyond, you don’t simply have to accept the limitations associated with age. By carefully adjusting your lifestyle and investing in the right anti-aging treatment, you may be able to regain control of your mind and body and continue to live your life as you choose.


Isn’t the expression “40 is the new 30”?   (Ah, these unequal equalities are so confusing!)  Anyway, here the writer discredits the “details” of your birth certificate.  Yeah, all those pesky details!  Those aren’t the facts.  The FACT is that the DETAILS don’t have to matter or make one iota of difference.  And look at the carrot at the end of the paragraph: “continue to live YOUR life as YOU choose.”  Ah yes, good old independence!

Now of course they begin with some facts so obvious that they don’t need to be stated: an old person can be healthier than a young person.  So far so good.

But you see where this is going.

This website provides the modern ‘scientific’ version of a crystal ball, one of many life-expectancy calculators.  I recommend using one, because it’s wise to think about these things.  The one on this website gave me the longest life-expectancy of all.  Apparently, I am going to live until I am 105.  And my ‘Health Age’ is 16.


This is not ‘good news.’  It is nonsense.

But how can a person argue with this?  They made up the questions, and they made up the answer too.  It’s a FACT.  And isn’t that interesting that they want to speak in terms of a “simple fact” when there aren’t very many facts which are simpler than the fact of your date of birth, and hence, your real age? In lieu of this, they substitute a time-consuming questionnaire (not simple) in order to give me my ‘health age.’


Indeed, I cannot prove to them that I will not live until I am 105.  How can I prove that they’re wrong?  I can show that it is statistically extremely improbable, and I can show them that there were certain questions missing from their questionnaire, but once you step away from common sense starting-points, well, you can make the truth be whatever you want it to be.  That’s the problem with almost all philosophy; it doesn’t begin with natural starting-points.  Chesterton praised St. Thomas Aquinas because St. Thomas Aquinas, unparalleled genius that he was, began with what he could learn from his senses.  What is more sensible than that?  And, unparalleled genius that he was, he climbed very, very, high from that foundation.

But anyway, my answer to all the people at the Longevity Centres of America is to say that they cannot prove that I will live until I am 105, and they cannot sell me anything that will ‘enable me to regain control of my mind and body’ in any significant way (as if anyone really has very much control over these things in the first place).

Who knows how long they will live?  Will you be that health-conscious person who dies at the age of 33, or that sickly person who outlives all her friends and dies at 93?  Statistically speaking, my chance of a sudden death is greater than my chance of living until I am 105.  And even if 99% of my body has a health age of 16, surely at least 1% of my body knows how to act its age.  And perhaps that 1% will have a decisive vote and take me down.

So there is uncertainty, but these uncertainties exist in the context of some basic certainties.  If you are 79, you are not young.  If you are 69, you are not young.  If you are 59, you are not young.  If you are 49, you are not young.  If you are 39, you are not young.

At 39, you are middle-aged.  39 is roughly the middle.  The bible says that a man’s life is ‘three-score and ten’ which is 70, and despite all the talk of living longer, we can, in general, hope for a life about 80 years long.  Even that is not guaranteed, in which case, you might be past the middle of your life at age 39.

And when you consider the fact that, in general, our vitality tapers off as we reach these later years, we shouldn’t get too excited about getting an extra 8 or 10 years on top of this.  To put it another way, the extra years that you’d get, if you were to win the longevity lottery, are the ‘weaker’ ones, those discounted ones that are on sale at the dollar store.  Remove the gift wrap and you’ll see some saggy years staring back at you: 84, 85, 86, 87.  You won’t luck out and get an extra set of the 20s or 30s.

Now I’m not saying that those later years aren’t worth having; they are truly a gift, just like all the other days that God gives us, and if they are marked by sorrow or suffering, then we can gain great spiritual benefit from them.  (Euthanasia’s greatest crime is that it steals from us our big chance for penance and atonement – being procrastinators, we’ll avoid such things until we have no choice but to face them.)

What I am saying is, let’s be realistic, and not delude ourselves, by our words or actions, into thinking that we have more time than we have.   Our very lives are like August.  It may look like an endless summer, and sound like one and even feel like one, but there’s a scent in the air, and it’s time to prepare.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted

– Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2

Post 34

The Good, the Bad and the Unusual:
More About Blogging

Sometime between Post 32 and 33, my dad told me that he was subscribing to my blog.

I did not know this.  This can happen when you don’t have access to your own stats.

As a matter of fact, I did not know that he knew I had a blog.   You can be sure that upon hearing this, I mentally ‘re-read’ my posts through my dad’s perspective, or what I think my dad’s perspective would be.

Hmm.  It’s an unusual feeling.

Isn’t it odd that there are things that we’ll tell to the complete stranger but that we won’t tell nearly so easily to our own family?  I could speculate about why that is, but here’s Chesterton’s take:

Men always talk about the most important things to total strangers. It is because in the total stranger we perceive man himself; the image of God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of the wisdom of a moustache.

–  G.K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades, Chapter 5

Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself experiencing unusual sensations due to blogging.

For instance, there’s the feeling you get when you run into the same stimulus that provoked you to start a topic in the first place.

Soon after Post 19, I walked into a hospital in which there was a modern art exhibition and sale in a little internal gallery.  Displayed prominently was a canvas of black circles on a white background, just like my hypothetical example.  I looked at it, and thought to myself, “How uncanny.  I wrote about exactly that.” Then I saw a patient whose gown was sliding off his shoulder, and another whose gown gaped open in the back, and I thought to myself, “and I wrote about that” (Post 6) and as I saw the staff wheeling something somewhere, I thought, “and about that too” (Post 9).  Tonight as I opened the pizza box, I remembered my hypothetical green peppers (Post 22).

It’s almost as if you think, “Now that really reminds me of something someone said once!” and then you pause. “Ah yes, that someone was me.”

But it doesn’t end there.  When I went out with friends, I could barely contain myself as we wandered onto the discussion of feminism right after I had finished a post on it (Post 31).  When SpiritedOne said, “I do call myself a feminist – but I explain that I’m a pro-life feminist,” I felt like Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back Kotter,” (“Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!”) but what are you supposed to say?  How about, “Ladies, I really appreciate your attendance here tonight.  Please move your cheesecake aside while I set up my laptop; there we go.  The first slide you’re going to be seeing here – oh, let me just try to click through to it; there we go – for tonight’s PowerPoint presentation – do you all have a clear view? – is an overview of Blog Post #31, which was posted on July 29, 2015.  As you look at these bullets, you’ll notice -is my microphone on? – that this post contains, as usual, several digressions into completely unrelated topics . . .”

Yeah, maybe not.

“Gee, I wonder how come my friends never invite me out anymore.”

So instead I made valuable contributions to the conversation such as this, “I wrote about that!” and then later, I added this gem: “Ooh, yes, exactly!  I said that too!”

How can I let myself get started on the topic when I’ve said it all before?  How much kimchee is too much?  You’ve got easy access to the written version, but now that I’ve got you here in person, I’ll give you the audio version too.  As a matter of fact, I have a printed-out version right here; you can read along as I share my thoughts on the topic.  And would you be interested in a fridge magnet by any chance?

Yeah, it feels strange.

And then there are the things that I would count on the negative side of the ledger, which I didn’t fully appreciate before.

One minus is that the standard for blogging is so low that you can barely admit to doing it.  You feel sheepish.  The other day a woman said to me, “I’ve carved out some time to write today.”  She said that she’s working on a book and that she hopes to have it published one day.  I felt like saying, “I write too!  I write all the time!  When I’m not writing on the computer, I’m writing in my head!  I write when I shouldn’t be writing!  I write when I have no time carved out for writing!  I can’t stop!” 

But I didn’t say anything, because if you tell people that you write, then they’ll ask you what you write, and then it will turn out that it’s only a blog.  A blog, where ‘publishing’ is only a mouse click away.

Someone saw me typing once and asked, “Are you a writer?”  I said, “Well, not really.”  A few minutes later, someone asked the same thing.  “Are you a writer?”  I said, “Well, kind of.  It’s a blog.”

Another thing, which is a mixture of good and bad and strange is the way that I often find, after posting, that the exact same point was made by somebody else. That might not sound so bad, but allow me an analogy.  Starting a new topic is like diving into the river.  You think it will be a fairly straightforward swim, and the other side of the river doesn’t look too far away; it won’t be like the last time.  You happily jump in.  Then part way through, as always, you find that it’s fairly tough work; there are obstacles that you didn’t expect, and you can’t swim around them; you must swim through them.  So you keep going, and then at last, you arrive on the other side, panting and tired.  Nevertheless, you have a sense of accomplishment, because you’ve done your best and you made it after all.  As you are toweling off, you look up, and you notice something.

Wait a minute – that’s not – that’s a bridge, isn’t it?

It turns out that someone else, probably Chesterton, was here several decades ago, and he built a bridge, elegant and perfect, that spans that exact same river that you wanted to cross.


I see.

Well, well.

So I guess I could have just – I could have just – taken that.

And I tell you, just this morning, after writing my post about dancing, I was resting.  I lazily picked up a copy of Gilbert, a magazine which is free to members of the American Chesterton Society, and I read this:

He once contrasted the scientific civilization advocated by Joseph McCabe with the religious commonwealth of the Middle Ages by asserting that the former believes in specialists doing things that the latter believes everyone should do.  Chesterton gives a few examples.  Once “this habit of dancing was a common habit with everybody, and was not necessarily confined to a professional class.  A person could dance without being a dancer; a person could dance without being a specialist; a person could dance without being pink.” He gives another example. “The very fact that Mr. McCabe thinks of dancing as a thing belonging to hired women at the Alhambra [a ballet hall] is an illustration of the same principle by which he is able to think of religion as a thing belonging to some hired men in white neckties.”  This is in line with his idea of the democratic faith being that terribly important things must be left to ordinary people.

And then he gives two more examples.  “Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better.  If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.”

– David Fagerberg, “Smile, You’re on the Internet,” Gilbert Magazine, Volume 18, No. 6-7, May-June 2015

I read this not more than fifteen minutes after publishing my post about dancing.  I could not believe the timing!

I guess the good news is that I went in the same direction as Chesterton, but I have to say, it does feel strange to stand here, dripping wet, looking at that bridge.

So arguably, I should do more reading, in order to find more of these bridges before I start any given topic.  But I confess that I’ve noticed another unintended consequence of blogging, and that is that I approach books with some trepidation now: “Oh dear, the next few pages of this book will probably have a whole bunch of great quotations, and will fill my head with new ideas, and then I’ll have even more blog topics than I already have and then I won’t be able to remember all these new ideas and plus I’ll have even more places to look whenever I want to retrieve a quotation because I’ll have even more source material than I already have now.”


Okay, no more thinking for today.  Maybe I’ll just go read the instruction manual for the alarm clock.

Instruction manuals. Language. Precision in language. Truth. Beauty. Goodness.  Aagh!

Happy Birthday Dad.  Welcome to my blog.  Can I interest you in a fridge magnet?