The Watcher

I had been walking for some time, and still I did not know where I was. In fact, I didn’t even know how long I had been walking, or even if I was walking at all. But I was moving, somehow, although I could not feel the pressure of my feet on the ground. I could not even see my feet, nor could I hear them rhythmically hitting the ground, yet for some reason I was not at all phased by the bizarreness of my situation. I scanned the street, wondering vaguely what this town was called and how I had arrived here. It appeared to be the high street of a small town; the shop windows were filled with colours, shapes, and sizes, none of which I really took in. Around me, people elbowed their way past each other and pushed in and out of doorways, their expressions harried. Their faces struck me–out of all the sights on that street, the faces alone clamoured for my attention. The faces revealed rather than concealed the person inside. Whatever out-of-body state I was in, it seemed to have given me an insight into character that I did not ordinarily possess. The black-suited man who marched past me was not simply frowning–he seemed to be a frown personified. I knew with certainty that there was nothing more to know about him, nothing more to be said, than that he was a man who frowned. The blonde teenager going in the other direction was different. She smiled, but it was a smile that smiled at all the wrong things.

As I continued to walk and to watch the faces around me, heedless of where I was going, it dawned on me that I had reached the edge of the town. Something told me I must go on, and so I made my way through the countryside until I reached a large house. Seeing it, I knew that I must go inside.

I saw the girl almost immediately, as she hurried down the corridor and into her bedroom. She was quite young, but could certainly not be called beautiful. As I watched, she picked something up–I could not quite see what–and ran downstairs again to carry on with her work. Gliding after her, I observed her for the rest of that day and for many days to come, watching what her face revealed about her. She was neither all frown nor all smile, like the man and girl I had seen earlier. Instead, she seemed bent, in and down, as if there was little outside of her own concerns that she could think about. I could not read her thoughts, but I did not have to, for “worrier” was displayed across her face almost as plainly as if it had been written there with a black marker. Nor was it necessary for me to hear her–her face showed, as she spoke, how often she was talking of who or what she felt was wrong. Here, I was sure, was someone who was better at hunting for problems that hunting for joy.

I could see that she sometimes realised what she was doing, that she sometimes did try to think differently, but I saw that she failed more than she succeeded. I wanted to help her. Surely that was what I had been sent for? To somehow show her how much beauty was around her, how much there was to be joyful about, to give thanks for, how many good things there were to think about it. She could not see me, I knew, but somehow I had to get her attention. I stood in front of her, and forgetting she could not hear me, exclaimed, “Foolish, foolish girl! Set your mind on good things!” Desperate to get her attention, I reached out to grab her arm, but to my surprise I hit glass.

It was then that I realised that I was standing in front of a mirror.

***********************************************************************************************************************************************

A little creative writing–the idea came to me yesterday and I’ve written it today, so it’s not something I’ve spent days on. Constructive criticism is welcome! 

I was in part inspired to write this after hearing an address by Dr David Murray on Philippians 4:8, and what he shared in that address about our thought life has played a key part in shaping this story.

And… it’s my first week to have a double post! 

Know Your Tools

Last week was my first week to miss posting since the end of June or the beginning of July. (Yes, I could check exactly when it was. No, I’m not going to.) I have been aiming to write one or two posts a week, and while I’ve never yet achieved two posts in a week (I’ll get there one day), last week I missed it entirely. I think I have a good excuse though–better than “the dog ate my homework” type anyway–I have been away from home since last Tuesday, and have spent quite a bit of that time travelling. In fact, since I have studiously avoided buying a smartphone and thus having the internet follow me everywhere, I have spent very little time on the internet since I’ve left home, until today. Which is good. Life really can go on without the internet–well, work and study can’t, but leisure time can– for a little while, although I have to admit that after going three days without checking my emails, I was pretty keen to log in again! And as for the blogs I normally check almost daily (and sometimes, ahem, a number of times per day), why, until today I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t been reading them. Perhaps I don’t need to check them as often as I do when the the internet is at my fingertips. Note to self, perhaps? Oh, but the pull is hard to resist. Hmmm.

On that theme, while on one of my plane trips last week, I finished reading From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer. Now that I’ve read it, I would like to fish out Tim Challies’ The Next Story, which I read about two years ago, I think, to see how they compare, but as that is on my shelf at home and I am thousands of miles from said shelf, I have a hunch that such a fishing attempt would be doomed from the outset. From what I remember, however, I think Challies provided a more robust treatment of the topic, but Dyer’s book is still a helpful introduction to an issue which I think we really ought not overlook.

For me, one of the most helpful things about From the Garden to the City, and the only point that I want to mention here, is an apt illustration that he used. (To a certain friend–you know who you are–he nailed it.) I’m not going to run upstairs and grab the book and start to carefully summarise. Memory will do, and I think I can get across the general idea, with something of my own flavour added to the mix but due credit to Dyer! Technology, Dyer points out in his book, is not neutral. A computer can be used to spread God’s truth or to spread lies, but that doesn’t mean that the only important thing about a computer is how we use it. Like any tool, a computer (or any sort of technology) shapes its user. Now to the illustration. A shovel is used to dig a hole. (I’m sure it can also serve other purposes, but I confess it’s not a topic I’ve fully explored….) The shovel changes the ground. A hole appears where no hole was before. But the shovel has also changed the shovel-er, or at least it will do if he uses it repeatedly. His hands, Dyer pointed out, will get blisters. His back may hurt and his arm muscles get stronger. The shovel has changed the earth but it has also changed the man. Now, that’s not necessarily a big problem, but it’s a consequence that one ought to be aware of, and not just with shovels but with any tool, and in particular with the barrage of technological “tools” that have so changed our lives in recent years. The consequences may be minor or they may be more important. Yes, you can use a search engine, for example, in good ways or bad. But the mere act of regularly searching the internet will also shape you. It’s not just what you do with the tool, Dyer says, it’s what the tool does to you. Maybe those changes aren’t a problem. Or maybe they should be avoided, or to some degree counteracted in a different way. But let’s not fool ourselves that there are no changes, that there is no shaping. Unconvinced? Read From the Garden to the City, The Next Story, or both. I know that I could definitely improve in this area. And now to finish up this post, to put my shovel away. For now….

Two Books from July

Excuse the unimaginative title for this post.

It’s been quite a full week. Furthermore, I don’t have any more stories about train ladies reading Narnia. Lacking such inspiration, I decided to share some thoughts on two books I read last month.

I was reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage as part of the student challenge I’ve mentioned before. Otherwise, I doubt I’d have read it. I’m really not the sort of girl to pick up a book from the shelf, see that it’s a story about men stranded in Antarctica, and exclaim, “Oh, that looks good!” I admit, however, that it can be beneficial to sample something outside of one’s usual genres, and as it turned out, Endurance is a well-written book and, given the limits of the subject matter (or of my reading preferences, depending on how one wants to look at it) it still manages to tell quite a good story.

In brief, Endurance recounts how Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, is determined to set a new record, that of being the first person to cross Antarctica. (I know, I know. He evidently had too much time on his hands.) With twenty-seven men and a veritable mountain of supplies, he sets sail as Europe is on the cusp of the First World War. Before the expedition can even land on Antarctic–“soil” is probably not the right word here–their ship, Endurance, becomes trapped by ice. A trapped ship obviously means trapped men, and so Shackleton and his party are stranded in one of the most uninhabitable regions of the globe. The year and a half that follows is the story of their life and their attempts to escape back to civilisation.

Reading something like Endurance shows what people can cope with, what they can survive, when they really, really have too. Isn’t it quite amazing how the human spirit can overcome not only dreadful outside hardships but the weakness of its own body? Could I do that, I wonder? I don’t suppose anyone really knows until he is in such a situation. A story like Endurance also shows that when push comes to shove, life has very few actual necessities. So much can be stripped away and yet life can still go on.

(One word of warning: the version I read was the Tyndale House version with a forward by James Dobson. There’s a note inside saying that it has been edited for a Christian audience. I imagine that editing would be for language, but I don’t actually know. Just bear in mind that whatever was taken out in the Tyndale version will still be in the regular version.)

St. Elmo, by Augusta Evans Wilson, was on my mental “possibilities” list for a long time. I don’t think it’s a well-known book these days, but apparently it was wildly successful in the nineteenth century. Inheritance Publications carry (or at least carried) it in their catalogue, and some of my favourite Christian novels have been from books that Inheritance Publications have listed. These favourites of mine have been well-written books of historical fiction with a Christian ethos that is a natural part of the story rather than being light, trite, and mediocre. St. Elmo was described as sensational and Christian. If that sounds dodgy, please do remember that it’s a nineteenth-century book written by a Christian lady. That being said, the description captured my attention and eventually I acquired a copy–or in other words, downloaded a free kindle edition.

Edna is a young orphan who gains a home with an aristocratic lady, Mrs Murray, and her son St Elmo. (No, I hadn’t realised “St. Elmo” would end up being a person’s name either.) St. Elmo is a hardened, bitter cynic, but as he watches Edna, he begins to see that all of womankind may not be as untrustworthy as he bitterly believed them to be. He tries not to believe this, preferring to stay in the safety of cynicism, but all the time he is silently watching and testing Edna, and she, while fearing and avoiding him, unintentionally upends his assumptions about human nature.

I’ll admit I didn’t like everything about St. Elmo. I did get frustrated with Edna at times, but I would probably have cut her a certain amount of slack if I had known how the story was going to end! Furthermore, Mrs Wilson immersed the book in classical allusions. It seems that she can scarcely describe a scene, or one of her characters can scarcely open their mouth, without her subjecting the reader to at least a couple of paragraphs of classical and eastern allusions. Yes, I exaggerate, but not as much as you might think. Lastly, I don’t think the story showed as clearly as I would have been liked that when someone turns to God he is forgiven fully and freely–yes, his life changes, but he does not need to make atonement himself. It is, however, a gripping and even a moving story, with a key theme being the question of whether someone’s life can truly be turned around. It kept me up reading late more than once!

And there you have it. No prizes for guessing which book I enjoyed more!

Narnia, Wrinkles, and Grey Hair

Do you notice what strangers are reading? And if they’re near enough–perhaps sitting beside you on a plane–try to surreptitiously peer over and read a bit of what they’re reading too?  I was on the train yesterday, and I noticed a woman diagonally across from me. I noticed her not only because she was reading, but because of what she was reading. She was reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Looking at her, I wondered if she was in her late fifties. Her appearance, however, tended more towards  “youthful” than towards “grandmother.” Her fair hair hung thick and loose to shoulder length with a tossled curly sort of look. Her skin, which had lost the freshness of young skin, was tanned. I could see that she was wearing mascara. Her short dress was bright red with scattered flowers and a denim jacket lay on the seat beside her.

Her copy of the book was old. The picture on the front looked like a coloured version of one of the original drawings. She sat there, largely undistracted, and appeared to read it from start to finish in a little over an hour. I watched her carefully (until I reluctantly turned to my revision) and she was either skim-reading and skipping bits, or else she was a very fast reader. Skimming or no skimming, however, little distracted her from her rapid paging through the story. I was curious. Why does a woman of her age read a Narnia book on the train? Was she indulging in re-reading a childhood favourite? Or was this her first time to read it? What was it that drew her to that book, and what were her thoughts when she finished it? I wasn’t, however, brave enough to cross the isle, plonk down beside her, and say politely, “I see you’re reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. May I ask why?” Yet, all the same, I felt a kinship with her. Here was a perfect stranger reading a book that I love. I smiled at her twice when she glanced my way (was she wondering why that strange girl seemed to be staring at her so much?), but she didn’t seem to catch my eye. And eventually the girl with pages of handwritten study notes in her bag and the lady who read Narnia on the train went their separate ways.

I read some Gerald Manley Hopkins poetry last night. I tend to dislike nontraditional poems, but I can’t help falling a bit in love with some of Hopkins’ poetry. Oh, he makes words fresh and strange and weaves beautiful, alliterated thoughts. I can’t make sense of all he says, but I can still catch some of the beauty in there. I wanted to find a poem that I had heard read years ago, and after a little bit of hunting, I discovered it: The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo. Go and read it.

Age is coming,. Beauty is fading. What to do?
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and
tumbling to decay

But wait. All is not lost. Not at all.

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyhanded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.–Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.–
Yonder.– What, high as that! We follow, now we follow.– Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,
Yonder.

I hadn’t intended to link the lady on the train with this poem–she and the poem began as two separate things that I wanted to share. But when I thought of a title for this post, I thought how my Narnia-reading fellow passenger looked like someone who was trying to stay young. Perhaps she wasn’t. But either way, there’s no need to do that, Hopkins says. Wrinkles and grey hair will come, and eventually death. But nothing is lost, not really. It’s like laying aside a rich cloak, which will be safely folded and stored, waiting for us to wear it once again. Except that when we resume our cloaks, the beauty will be such that what we call beauty now will be ugliness in comparison to the beauty then. Read Narnia, train lady. I hope you read it and see beauty and truth in it. If you don’t already know God, I hope that one day you will.  And then, any worries you may or may not have about getting older won’t matter. Give your beauty “back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” He will restore it. Yonder.

Easy When You Know How

Archaeologists and their ilk are clever folks. From a few bones and other odds and ends they can reconstruct much more of the lives of people and cultures long gone (although not always as long gone as they would like to think) than one might realise is possible. It’s quite amazing, really. Here are some choice extracts from my current textbook, Religions of the World:

“In addition, archaeologists have found bear skulls, apparently carefully arranged, in Neanderthal burials, which may suggest a worshipful attitude toward the bear.”

“Sometimes the [Cro-Magnon] burials show the corpse was left curled up in a fetal position. To some, this might indicate that the dead were seeking rebirth in the next life.”

“It is believed that by painting the animals being killed or retracing the paintings, the priests were hoping to predict the events of a successful hunt.”

What will the archaeologists, anthropologists, et al think of the things that we leave behind, you may wonder. Wonder no more, my friend–I can tell you. I hereby present some excerpts from that famous book, published in A.D. 15,023, Twenty-First Century Life: What Do We Know? (I am still in discussion with my legal advisors as to whether I can make known exactly how I obtained these extracts.)

In many of the photographs from the early part of the twenty-first century, the careful observer is struck by the profusion of small, rectangular objects, into which an individual would gaze, or which he would hold to the side of his head. The video recordings that we have retrieved show that these objects would emit various sounds, sometimes harsh and threatening, which appeared to be the cue for an individual to remove the object from a place of safety and symbolic importance–the head or the thigh–and place it to his head. Sadly, our linguistic experts are still unable to translate the words that would then follow, but many experts are of the opinion that these objects were used as means to attempt communication with the spirit world.

Some experts are also of the opinion that the custom of offering sacrifices to household deities–a custom which for many centuries had been neglected in Western culture–was revived during this period and in fact became a ritual after almost every meal. At the close of a meal, a family member–often a woman–seems to have donned a sacred robe and offered the remains of the meal to the gods. Placing the dishes inside a large and secure box, she would add liquid or powder (probably a form of incense) and close the door of the box. The low rumbling noises that ensued evidenced that the gods had accepted the sacrifice, which acceptance they showed by returning the dishes to their state of original purity. Should the dishes repeatedly be left with the offerings still intact, the evidence suggests that great distress would ensure, particularly for the female members of the family, who were the most ardent worshippers of the household deities. Under such circumstances, resort would often have to be made to a priest, who, arriving with many curious objects, would for a fee perform certain mysterious rituals in the box in order to placate the gods and encourage them to accept the sacrifices in the future.

There! Who’d have thought?

(Disclaimer: I know that there are many archaeologists, historians, and so forth who really are very learned. Moreover, said textbook contains a lot of helpful information. But as with so many things, even the words of these learned people sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt…. Furthermore, as I think I have read in more than one place, there is a big difference between knowing the facts and being able to interpret the facts.)