Fearfully:Wonderfully

Have you ever thought about how amazing evolution is?

I’m studying for two tests–one about the environment and humanity and one about human health–and, let me tell you, evolution has done a spectacular job of making this world of ours.

Stop and think of what this world can do, of what a human body can do, and of how well it’s done.

I know that people get colds and headaches and pain, and have organs that fail and diseases that are unspeakably hard to live through. I know that we can be slow to learn new skills, that we sometimes have memory spans that can rival those of goldfish. But the incredible thing is that, for most people, most of the time, most of their body works–and works in the most complex of ways.

When I drive a car, I’m scanning the road ahead for things I don’t want to hit (hint: pedestrians fall into this category). My eyes and brain work together in a way I know little about, but that SJ could no doubt wax lyrical in explaining. My feet press the pedals; my hands are busy with the steering wheel, gears, and indicators. I’m turning at junctions, adjusting my speed, and reading signs. At the same time (believe it or not) I can be listening to music and even thinking about something else entirely–not about obstacles or direction or even about the music but perhaps about what I’ll be doing at my destination or my plans for later in the week.

I haven’t even listed everything.

And that’s before I get into what my body does when I drive that I’m not even in control of. The thud-thud of my heart never stops. My white cells could be playing search and destroy with oodles of pathogens in the space of a single car journey. Neurotransmitters fire in my brain, nerve endings and muscles do their jobs, and, basically, everything works. And guess what? It happens all the time.

I know that floods destroy and fires consume and tornadoes tear and throw and some people are convinced that the global climate is changing. But such things make the headlines because they’re not what normally happens. Normally, water dances through an incredible cycle from ground to sky to ground again, and in most places falls in enough quantities to sustain life and not enough to kill it. The sun is placed just where it should be. It doesn’t fluctuate so greatly in its temperature that people are scorched one day and frozen the next (and I’m using those verbs quite literally). The world itself just hangs in nothingness, and never seems to feel the need to take an excursion outside of the Milky Way. There are atoms and molecules and fungi and phytoplankton and a host of tiny things that all do their jobs, often without our seeing them, without our help and without our say-so. It just happens–and happens in such a way that, broadly speaking, this world is a habitable and even a hospitable place.

And it all just appeared from nowhere, got this way without any help, and it carries on all by itself too.

Why don’t more things go wrong? Does nitrogen never get tired of doing the rounds on the nitrogen cycle? Objects of falling down rather than up? The moon of hanging? Molecules of coming together and joining apart exactly when they should?

Why do I mostly feel well? Why can I normally work and learn and remember and multitask? What keeps almost every cell inside me working almost all the time? How did cells like that ever decide to start working together in human bodies anyway and what makes them keep it up?

I don’t know the half of what goes on inside me, let alone what goes on in this planet.

The fact that all we see–and we ourselves–just appeared, that everything got to be the way it is without any help whatsoever, and that every process from the rhythmic regularity of the tides to my trusty cardiovascular system can maintain itself in a generally regular and predictable way, is, well, incredible.

Yes. Incredible.

O Evolution, you’re so incredible that, quite frankly, I find I don’t have enough faith to believe in you at all.

Of Lovely Things

Pretend it’s last week, please?

I sat down to write on Saturday afternoon. Your last chance to blog this week! a little voice inside my head reminded me.

And so I sat and typed and thought and hoped for inspiration.

What to say?

A few ideas presented themselves, were considered, and, like troublesome schoolchildren, were dismissed.

All except one–a little tyke who presented himself when I re-read a draft post I never published.

And so, my friends, at the beginning of this week (which is really last week, remember, so we can pretend I didn’t miss a week of blogging), I’m inviting you to join me on a ramble. Not an out-in-the woods ramble (although, with the leaves just turning yellow and orange, and if the sky were blue and the sun shining like it was when I began writing on Saturday, the idea would have some appeal), but a ramble, a listing, of lovely things.

Of things to give thanks for, of words that have touched me, of snatches of beauty.

Disclaimer: I’m not always a seeker of loveliness, a giver of thanks. Ahem. Far from it.  I don’t tend to see potential more easily than problems or express gratitude more often than complaint.  These things aren’t natural for me (although they will, I hope, one day come more naturally than they do now). And so, as I sit and think of good, true, and beautiful things that have come my way recently, maybe it will help to give me a slightly more open, a slightly more practiced, eye. And if these lovely things gladden you a little too, why, that’s even better. Because, really, who is in serious danger of thinking of good things too much?

Loveliness is in the written word.

In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. My first time to fall into a Berry novel. Truly a lovely place to fall. A place of family and community, a place of kindness that sustains during sorrow, a place where even in sorrow there is gratitude. A gentle, undramatic, lovely story. “This is my story,” says Hannah, “my giving of thanks.” I haven’t got that far through yet. I imagine I’ll share more when I’m finished. But the joy of sitting propped in bed reading a good book–ah!

Loveliness is in the spoken word,

In talks from the Desiring God National Conference, about C S Lewis (oh joy)–learning about him, and, more importantly, from him. If you only listen to one talk, listen to Joe Rigney’s Live Like a Narnian. A favourite for SJ and for me. (Here’s what a man–A King-Lune-like man!–should be: “First in, last out, laughing loudest.”)

Lovely things are flesh-and-blood things too!

The two-year-old with eager voice trying to tell me something that I confess was almost totally unintelligible to me, but delightful to hear all the same!

Chats with my sister-in-law.

Cuddles with younger brothers.

Music while I work. O Mio Babbino Carro. Moonlight Sonata. Nathan Clark George.

Baking with my youngest brother. Banana bread. (His favourite baking jobs appear to be cracking eggs and unpeeling bananas….) Chocolate and pear pudding.

Eating the aforementioned chocolate and pear pudding. Rich and warm and good.

The quiet of early morning.

And so much more….

Beauty. Lovely things. Sometimes, in the words of that red-headed Anne, “simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.” (Thanks Emily for reminding me of that quote!) Sometimes, more dramatic.

Yes, there is ugliness and sin and sadness in my life and in the world at large.

But we should fight these things rather than soak them in.

We should soak in what’s lovely.

Writing Like Porridge

” . . . [W]riting and thinking are, if not the same thing, quite inseparable. If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around.”

So says Don Watson in his book Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak are Strangling our Public Language.

I haven’t read the whole book. I intended to, but after a while I resorted to skimming and skipping. The subject of language and its use and misuse fascinates me. This particular treatment of the subject did not fascinate me, at least not all the way through. I tired of the political emphasis and the constant (intentional) interspersing of clichés and management-speak throughout the text. That being said, Gobbledygook did contain some good advice and and also make some extremely important points.

One idea Watson underscores is the connection between language and thought.

“Such wisdom as we have, we express in language, and in language we also seek wisdom. An impoverished languages must perforce accompany impoverished thought. As Orwell said: ‘It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.'”

Watson would say that if we’re not expressing ourselves clearly, either we’re not thinking, we’re unable to express what we are thinking, or we’re intentionally trying to express something other than what we’re actually thinking, Porridge is all very well as porridge, but it’s downright nasty if it’s a description of our writing skills, never mind our thinking ones. Would you like to know what porridge looks like in written form? Here’s a beautiful example Watson cites:

“These pressures include substantially reduced funding, unfavourable demographic trends, and impending initiatives which, along with reform, may present threats. Added to these pressures is the desire for the universities to be more integrated in the overall economic development strategies of the State.”

Now compare it with this revised version:

“The universities are under pressure. They have lost funding and they are losing people. They struggle to keep up with the demands of reforming governments and a modern economy. True, changes have been made: they share resources and research and look for other ways to cooperate. But they must do more than this.”

Which paragraph is easier to understand? If you had to read twenty pages’ worth of one style of paragraph, which one would you choose? Why?

The second paragraph, as Watson admits, is “hardly poetry”, but at least, he says it’s “clearer” and he’s quite right. We know what the writer is trying to say, and if we could stick with him for a while longer if we had to. A couple of pages like the first paragraph would either make your brain hurt with the effort to follow it, or else make your brain and eyes disengage as you sink into an approximation of reading that fails to bring much understanding with it.

Not everyone can write with beauty, humour, or power. We’re not all Austens or Lewises or even Wodehouses and we don’t have to be (kind of a shame, though). But I do think that we should try to communicate our thoughts clearly, to understand the basics of how language works and use those basics well. And if our porridge-writing is caused by porridge-thinking, that will need to be attended to also.

If poor writing and shallow thinking are–I really can’t use a cliché like “vicious circle” in this post, now can I?–if poor writing and shallow thinking both gorge on each other, which does one try to eliminate first? Should I try to think more clearly in the hope of writing more clearly, or the other way around?

For me–and I’ve read others who’ve said the same–writing doesn’t just express my thoughts, but it can actually be a part of my thinking process, and so aiming for clarity in writing makes me have to think harder and (I hope) better. It’s harder than you might think. For me, anyway. I can feel the brain strain when I edit a post like this one!

What does it mean to write with clarity? This isn’t original with me, nor is it rocket science, but it means to write something your reader can easily understand, going on nothing but the words in front of him. It means the writer getting the reader to think what the writer wants him to think. Writers know what they mean when they write because they know all the other thoughts and half thoughts and feelings that never become a written part of the finished product but that helped to shape it all the same. Their readers don’t have that. C S Lewis once said that “[t]he reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.”

So don’t assume your reader knows anything about your thoughts other than as they are expressed in the words you put on paper. And if you think your thoughts make perfect sense, perhaps ask someone else to read them and give you their honest feedback. It can be a humbling experience, but it will help you to write more clearly. Know the basics of grammar and punctuation. Try to choose your words precisely. We generally only chip off bits of the gigantic iceberg that is the English language. What do I mean by a word like “interesting” anyway? Can I be more specific? Probably. If I can’t, do I need to work on improving my vocabulary?

Wow. This is my longest post ever. And there is much more that could be said–not just about writing with clarity, but then about that zing that turns average writing into truly good writing.

I’m hardly writing as an expert here (in case you hadn’t figured that out already!) I could take a red pen to this post–and to all my posts–if I really wanted to, and I have no doubt that others could too. Porridge thinking and porridge writing? I’ll wave my hand and admit my guilt. And if the judge lets me off, I’ll try to work on my culinary skills.