Originally published in October 2007.
Looking through Houghton’s course catalog the other day on a quest to decide my future, I noticed a class called ‘Psychology of Religion,’ which included SÃ¶ren Kierkegaard in its great theological and psychological thinkers. This was especially interesting to me because I had been hoping to write on the subject of the imagination, and I had thought of that as more of a psychological than theological topic. Kierkegaard tackles the issue of imagination from various perspectives and pseudonyms throughout his writings, but unites theology and psychology in his analysis of the imagination and what it means to humanity. In his work, especially Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling, a possibly preposterous idea arises: that the human being would be incapable of imagination without the existence of God.
Much of Fear and Trembling centers on the story of Abraham and his belief — a prime example of how imagination is feasible only through faith. Commanded to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham dutifully obeyed, believing “on the strength of the absurd” that “through faith [he would not] renounce anything, on the contrary in faith [he would] receive everything.” What makes this belief possible?
Johannes de silentio (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym) details for us the “faith paradox” in which “the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal [: and] stands in absolute relation to the absolute.” In plainer language, a person who chooses for himself to make continual choices for faith in God comes into an appropriate relationship with God (the only real absolute), characterized by a “paradoxical and humble courage.” For this continual choice to be possible, humans must in the first place be able to comprehend something larger than themselves.
In the process of creation God gave to humanity not just a spirit of immediate understanding, but also a perception of God Himself, in whose image humanity was created. This ability to perceive God (but not fully understand Him) is why Abraham could “imagine” that although he fully intended to go through with the sacrifice, God would keep His promise to give him Isaac as well. It’s a logical contradiction, but Abraham’s imagination allowed him to make what Johannes Climacus (a later pseudonym) will call the “leap of faith.”
Making this leap of faith, therefore, is nothing more than humans imagining against logical thought that God will provide or move or manifest His will, then choosing to immerse themselves in the belief that their imagination is the only the beginning of God’s working. It is the choice to believe the imaginative perception God gave to humans.
I am not talking about dreaming crazy situations where God swoops in and, in nothing short of a miracle, saves the day; neither do I mean our usual, modern definition of imagination — that gift required to write a novel or create a beautiful work of art or escape boredom. Though those are manifestations of the ability to imagine, given to humanity by God, the root of all imagination is God’s need for a relationship with man. God gave man the imagination to create scenes or ideas or pictures beyond the immediate, but His love for man requires that this imagination be fulfilled by an absolute belief.
The example of Nicodemus in John 3 is not explicitly given in Philosophical Fragments, but the reference to Nicodemus’ struggle with this very concept was unmistakable, especially considering Kierkegaard’s audience. His chief problem was that he imagined in too literal a sense what Jesus meant by “born again.” His imagination lacked faith’s leap into the absurd and could not process Jesus’ metaphor. Although as a member of the human race he had been given the ability to imagine — the ability to have faith — he was “essentially deceived” into thinking faith was entirely his work. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus saw God as one who would “draw the learned up toward himself” because of a careful Pharisaical lifestyle. Instead, as Jesus instructs and Climacus’ writings echo, he must concede the essence of faith is that God “will appear, therefore, as the equal of the lowliest of persons.”
But this is unthinkable! Disrespectful! Unimaginable!
That is exactly is what Johannes Climacus shows: the human mind and its capacity for imagination are totally reliant on a consciousness of something far beyond it, far greater than it, and yet also of something (Someone) who condescended to become equal to it. This condescension overleaps the limits of mere human imagination.
Only once God “poetized himself in the likeness of a human being” could man begin to truly and imaginatively marvel at God’s love, “for love does not have the satisfaction of need outside itself but within [:]” God’s love, completely justified in His being, still needs man’s imaginative, passionate, absurd faith to be complete.
What could be more preposterous — yet absolutely true — than this?
Watching CNN, I recently caught the tail end of a spot about a legend — or maybe not a legend — that I originally learned about from Chloe. Any guesses? Am I being too vague?
It was the chupacabra (“goat sucker” in English), apparently captured on video by a few policemen in Cuero, Texas. My initial reaction was to call Chloe, probably wake her up, and shout, “You were right! There is a chupacabra!” into her phone. But I\’m not quite that cruel, and besides, the last chupacabra-ish creature that was found in the Southwest turned out to be a mutant coyote — and this one hasn\’t yet been caught.
The whole thing got me thinking about the importance that legends — myths, folklore, old wives\’ tales — play in any society. I know next to nothing about the origin of the chupacabra legend, nor its significance in society today, but it seems to be lodged rather comfortably in the collective consciousness of the people of the Southwest. Could it be that legends are simply ways that we add spice to our history?
History, a controversial term and topic in and of itself, is never exactly what is related to us. There is always more than one side to a story; as I have read recently, “the right story, the whole story, and the true story are very often not all the same thing.” Legends provide us with an outlet for our creativity, our doubt, and our suspicions that what we perceive with our senses may not be exactly what is real.
To continue the cooking metaphor (which some of you know I am very fond of and almost cannot use without hand gestures), the spice added by legend, whether based in fact or fiction, is essential to create what we are in the present. In world history classes students learn of ”˜creation myths\’ from a variety of cultures. Our fascination with our origins, our surroundings, and the unknown in general has certainly made us adept at creating stories to satisfy it.
While many may dismiss stories, myths, or legends as unworthy of belief, let me remind you that belief in something is not the same as enjoying its color, or savoring the emotion, curiosity, or wonder it conjures. I don\’t believe in Santa Claus, or the giant alligators in New York City sewers, or perhaps even the chupacabra, but theirs is not an arena for belief. It\’s an arena for story.
If you know three basic chords on the guitar — G, C, and D — you can play a great deal of modern worship music. Not all of it is that simplistic, but much is.
Sometimes I dread picking out music for a worship service at my church. I have done it many times for at least three or four congregations, all with their good points and bad points, and sometimes, I just hate doing it. When did worship become an automatic, song-based, experiential thing? Can\’t I worship as I weed my garden?
Looking through the hymnal, it struck me that at one time or another, all of the songs in there were the equivalent of ”˜modern worship.\’ Some are older than others — our book includes Celtic melodies, Charles Wesley’s ”˜canon,\’ and other greats like Fanny Crosby.
Suddenly I realized that, despite my condemnation of much ”˜modern worship,\’ there are also many hymns I cannot stand. They seem, to me, to reek of triumphalist, reductionist, cheesy-rhymed stanzas set to unimpressive, repetitive melodies. So many sound so frustratingly similar, just like FM 91.1, Cadillac, Michigan — ”˜Northern Christian Radio.\’
So what do we do with songs we hate, yet somewhere, somehow, seem to lift up the name of the God that we claim to believe, worship, and follow? My tendency is to use those I don\’t agree with theologically sparingly, or not at all. If I wouldn\’t catch myself saying their lyrics, why would I sing them?
And as for ”˜modern\’ songs: we must make sure that when we sing them, it is not in an attempt to ”˜liven people up\’ or ”˜bring them down,\’ but to make them think, with all the steadfast passion of inwardness (thank you, SÃ¸ren), about humbling themselves completely before YHWH.
And then, let us do this in every other place besides a church meeting.
Today I came downstairs, absolutely certain that my brain was going to implode. I had misplaced my passport, and today I am leaving the country.
Up and down the newly carpeted stairs, the dull thudding of my feet and my heartbeat in my ears; unconcealed curses aimed at no one began my day.
I considered crying — but what good would that do? Emotionalism isn\’t really the answer to such a practical problem, and besides, breaking down in a mess of snot and mascara never solved any problems.
It had fallen down behind my jewelry box drawer. How simple.
It really isn\’t a very good beach day at all, if truth be told. Three out of three weathermen on the three out of three reliable channels picked up by my TV antenna prophesied, “Sunny with a high in the mid-80s, with just a breath of wind from the southwest,” but they have been proven wrong once again.
I should feel bad for meteorologists, really. Their entire career is like one very dysfunctional relationship with a mean, nasty, vindictive partner: the weather. It can\’t be predicted, or controlled, or reasoned with, but for some reason they stick with it, treating it nicely and using words like “stationary front” to describe a disastrous atmospheric battleground. I can just see Joe Kopecek of WZZM 13 West Michigan now, shaking his head as the little animated arrow misses the target of “accurate weather prediction”\’ once more, while the lunchtime news anchors laugh a little too gleefully. Fickle wench, he\’s probably thinking. Must be that time of the month.
But despite how much I should feel bad for the meteorologists, I can\’t muster up the sympathy. It\’s a selfish reason: today was (and is!) going to be a day at the beach. I\’ve called up my closest friend, we\’re rummaging around for some SPF 92.9 (I\’m Scotch-Irish, you ball of flaming skin cancer, you!), and looking sadly but resignedly at our bathing-suit-clad bodies in the mirror before slipping on some shorts and tank tops. It\’s a 50-minute drive to our favorite beach at Kruse Park in central Muskegon, and we are going to make a day of it.
The weather, however, really doesn\’t want to cooperate. What was supposed to be mid-80s is, by my porch thermometer, 97. Not so bad, you may be thinking. All the better to go swimming in. I grant you this, but 97-degree weather coupled with a strong wind is NOT good beach weather for two major reasons:
1. Rip tides. The most underrated danger about Lake Michigan, which is full of deceptive sandbars. Once you get out past the sandbar, the tide pulls you further and further out. And of course, the tides are stronger as the wind gets stronger.
2. Sand. Let\’s face it, sand is the devil. I may have read one of my favorite novels, Dune, upwards of 20 times, but romanticizing a desert planet won’t make for a wonderful day at the beach when sand is constantly getting lodged in your every orifice.
Weather notwithstanding, we are headed to the beach, hip-hop blaring from my car Evita\’s speakers, windows down, toting thermoses of lemonade and sandwich bags of grapes and peanuts (traditional beach food). Getting through Muskegon\’s busy streets is a breeze in the early afternoon, and soon enough we are on Sherman Avenue, heading due west. As we chat, I notice much heavier traffic coming toward us. It\’s not that odd, I suppose, for the part of town that we\’re in, but still”¦
We get to the beach and stop off briefly at the bath house. Parking Evita in the shade, we lug our towels, munchies, and obligatory chick lit up and around the beautiful boardwalk (another tradition). From the northernmost point we can see the channel and the high-speed ferry inching its way toward Wisconsin, and at the southernmost we have to turn around, giggling and running away, because we accidentally got caught in a wedding party trying rather pathetically to take pictures.
The wind has died down only slightly as we make our way to the beach itself. The waves are huge, the whitecaps beckoning like whipped cream on top of blueish-green sherbet. I decide to lay out for a bit and soak up some carcinogens while delving into my book. The wind is picking up more and more, blowing sand painfully into my eyes, and we decide that we might as well get in the water now. It\’s cold for late July and refreshing, but the wind whips soreness into our ears if we stay above the water for very long. We don\’t venture out to the sandbar for safety\’s sake, but float closer to shore, telling those deep secrets you only tell to close friends on a day at the beach.
We talk so long, floating on our backs, that neither of us see the storm clouds coming closer from the south until a raindrop hits my nose. Running back to our towels, the sand stings more than ever. We stuff all of our things into the beach bags and trudge back to the car, drenched from the lake and the rain. We proceed to soak the seats of my car, rolling up the windows in vain, driving home in a rather glum mood.
Oh well, I\’m sure we both are thinking. They forecasted better weather for next Tuesday”¦
Twaddle, twaddle, poke and paddle,
tell me what you see,
stirring, arms taut ”˜round that big pot
you mimic, so, with glee.
Oh, I added cumin — but that\’s just human —
or perhaps I like the kick.
To our sweet and savory meat?
Perhaps I should spices pick.
Don\’t worry now, for you\’ll see how
you won\’t tear up at taste.
Though I can\’t deny I\’ve never tried
this partic\’lar baste.
So sat they down, with smile and frown,
Sans restaurant or waiter.
And Cook agreed with Taster, indeed
She\’d use a recipe later.
The much-beloved first sentence to Jane Austen\’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”) is fantastic not only for its sarcastic poke at Regency culture, but also for the way it prompts the reader to think in similarly skeptical ways about his or her present context.
One might argue that being a skeptic is not a positive thing, but I believe that skepticism, in and of itself, can be beneficial. With the rise of postmodernism, where truth is here and there and everywhere, a mind that is discerning — skeptical? — is an advantageous acquisition for even the most casual perusal of, well, you know, those deep things in life, like faith, purpose, and relationship.
To deconstruct the idea of a “truth that is universally acknowledged” is a scary process for even the most moderately-minded Christian, and requires a certain depth of faith that I am not entirely sure I possess. In the last three days, my class has been engaging in this deconstructionist style of conversation. I admit that I love the dialogue, but I am terrified by what I know to be my weakness: accepting too much upon hearing it once. To what degree can I remain solid in my beliefs (and what are those anyway?) while still remaining open to the idea that they are an incomplete picture of a God who cannot be completely captured? This is the problem of amateur ecumenics!
Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “deconstruct.” I do not mean that by deconstructing we can do away with the idea that a truth (and not necessarily the truth) is universally acknowledged. Rather, I mean that to deconstruct an idea is to attempt to strip it down to its birthday suit and understand it for what it really is: ugly, flawed, and badly in need of a trip to the health club. I believe that a truth can and should be universally acknowledged, but what truth (singular)?
The important thing, I am coming to realize, is that deconstruction is only useful if it is followed by reconstruction. Sure, tear down the poor slob of an idea, but for goodness\’ sake, give him back his clothes, hand him a comb, and point him in the direction of the YMCA. And do it with the knowledge that he might have changed in the process.
Do I believe there is truth that can and should be universal? Yes.
Do I think that I comprehend this? Not fully.
Do others have a better grip on this than I do? Absolutely.
Are all of these others Christians? Certainly not.
God, please grant me the discernment to suspend my biases, my criticisms, even my Western ethos, in favor of a telos that is You.
Marianne stood behind the kitchen door, having run in from whatever it was that had happened with Jaffey. She could still see his face — the gaping mouth gurgling out that tortured sound, eyes bulging with intensity, and yet the rest of his body so still and calm. The yard was silent now, and she couldn\’t bring herself to guess where her husband might be. A thousand questions raced through her mind before any of them could form completely, and she couldn\’t seem to catch any of them long enough to think. She eased herself onto the ground, fearing she might faint, not knowing what to do.
After a full ten minutes that might have been an hour or two, she realized that she was more scared of the silence than anything else. Jaffey hadn\’t made another sound, so she convinced herself to act in stages. First, standing to her feet wasn\’t such a big deal — if Jaffey was near, he could just as easily find her standing as crouching. Then, she moved to the window — no use ignoring what was going on. Seeing no one, she gazed out at the barn and the little field that melted off the yard, poor lightish soil from which nothing much liked to grow.
A voice near to her made her practically jump out of her skin. “Mama?” it said plaintively.
“Goodness me! You scared me, darling!” It was Anna, her youngest. Of course it was. She was always too perceptive for her own good, showing up at the strangest, most awkward, most troublesome parts of life.
“What\’s Papa singing?” The question came out of the blue and like a strong wind knocked Marianne off her feet.
“Singing? Ah…I don\’t…know the song,” was all that she could get out.
It was every little child\’s question for everything, but in the 10 or 15 seconds it took Anna to realize that Marianne was distracted and walk away, Marianne had asked it to herself a dozen times or more. Why, why, why? There didn\’t seem to be an answer anywhere.
Anna didn\’t care. She ambled away, her reedy voice lapsing into a hum. It took a few seconds to register with Marianne, but when she recognized the tune, she was astonished.
It was a strange aberration of the wail Jaffey had just uttered. And the fact that Anna — sweet, awkward, four year old Anna — was humming it . . . well, that was something, wasn\’t it?
Anna grew up and wrote down the tune, once, though she never really remembered where it had come from. Jaffey stuck to farming and raising his other animals, but never again did he buy a sheep or a goat, and the old woman never reappeared. Anna inherited the house in Delmarva, and most of this was forgotten.
Anna\’s daughter, Deborah, was cleaning out her mother\’s attic in Delmarva and came across the sheet music her mother had scribbled as a child. It was untitled and unremarkable, but like all good musicians she hummed a few bars. It appealed to her and she stuck it in her pocket.
She had offered to take the dog out for a walk a few days later and while doing so, she pulled the sheet music out and tried it once more. The ravine where she was walking was the same where the old woman had been and where Jaffey had gone to collect his thoughts after that last day of prayer, when Anna had asked her mother the unanswerable why. The melody escaped and echoed and twisted and contorted, turning back into what it had once been even after leaving the lips of the granddaughter of the man who had first given it voice. Deborah kept humming, stock-still.
And I, Erin Clark, stood stock-still years later, scared out of my wits, hearing what once was a prayer.
This article is (for now) the last in a Bweinh! series on inspiring songs or songwriters. You can access the first eleven soundtrack entries here!
“I\’m not crying…it\’s just been raining…on my face…”
If I were to identify the two most common reactions to the music and lyrics of Flight of the Conchords, the guitar-toting duo from New Zealand, they would be as follows:
“Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
Maybe it\’s my penchant for asinine humor, but I do confess to being a fan of Flight of the Conchords. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the deadpan, pop-like, folk-ish, odd comedy couple whose self-entitled HBO show (chock full of their multi-genrÃ©d, life-explaining music) has landed them in the spotlight, can just tell a ridiculous story well — and to music!
The show\’s plot inevitably winds around a few of their nonsensical songs, often half-spoken and half-sung. From “Albie the Racist Dragon” to “The Humans are Dead” to “Rhymenocerous vs. Hip-Hop-apotamus,” Flight of the Conchords\’ clever rhymes and rhythms, quick lyrics, and acoustic charm are hard to beat. YouTube can be thanked for a great deal of their fame, with many episodes and concert excerpts available for our listening pleasure (and laughs).
No, they are definitely not among the ranks of the CCM-worthy, so let that be a caveat to the new, more tender listener. But to intelligent audiences who get tired of having to act intelligent, I would say: check them out. Seriously, where else can you hear a rap entitled, “Frodo, Don\’t Wear the Ring”?
Read part one of this short story here!
The nightmares had begun that night and slunk steadily downwards until Sunday. Each time, he fell into the twisting, tormenting river, and each time a gnarled, bony hand drew him out like a helpless babe and held him before the strange woman\’s face, a thousand wrinkles on every once-beautiful curve, age spots accumulating like maggots, eyes dulled by the sun. Each time Jaffey would try to hear what she was saying, try to read her lips, try to discern what was going on, and each time the woman would talk to him, threatening his sheep and his goats.
Two weeks after the encounter when the dreams had just begun to dull in time\’s first gentle dose of amnesia, Jaffey\’s sheep started getting sick. One by one, they fell ill: all eight in the span of four days. Jaffey didn\’t tell his wife; he just butchered the meat and gave the extra away.
The old woman\’s voice counted down with him in his head. Eight”¦must have been a blight. Seven”¦that old ram was on his way out. Six”¦not a very strong lamb, was he? Five”¦I should change what pasture they\’re eating; this one has a poison in it. Four”¦that old woman cursed me. Three”¦how did she do it?! Two”¦God please spare my flock!
One”¦ God please spare me”¦
So in church Jaffey prayed the whole service long; through the worship and the prayer and the four altar calls, through the sermon and the offertory and the special. Through the prophecy, the greeting; yes, he even sat down nineteen minutes before the service was to start and prayed though the coffee break. God spare me the only animals I have left. What will I tell my family?
These and a hundred other thoughts raced through his mind as the service began. Like voices in his head, the fears taunted him and tempted him to keep silent. He could imagine them having a conversation, sitting contentedly on his medulla oblongata, massaging it into submission.
“She\’s got to him, that\’s certain,” the first Fear would say, purple and shriveled, youngish voice grating.
“If he can just keep a silence, we have a hold on him for sure.” A second; old as the river, with a voice just as gravelly.
“Truly true. And what do you suppose? A coward like this hasn\’t the voice nor the nerves to do what he has to.” The first again.
“Ha. If he knew that speaking would help him”¦” the second Fear would pause, acidly comedic. “Well, he\’d have been yelping long ago!”
Jaffey saw that it was inevitable, then, that his prayer was no longer a thing of cowardice and silence, but something — anything — else. He opened his mouth and out came the howl.
Marianne wouldn\’t speak to him the whole way home, whether for anger, fear, frustration, or a combination of the three, Jaffey couldn\’t tell. When she had gotten the children into bed she collapsed onto the nearest chair at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. Jaffey had already seated himself at another chair and he looked at her, brow furrowed, in expectation.
She wasn\’t crying. He could tell this when she raised her head to fix him with a gaze and her cheeks were quite dry.
“What was that, husband?”
“Um.” A long pause ensued, in which Jaffey tried for a few words. “It was”¦well, it wasn\’t”¦there were these”¦oh, hum”¦”
After a few more hums, Marianne became impatient. “I know that we attend a church that is . . . progressive, is that what we called it? When we were first going there? But we were never that type, were we?”
Jaffey decided that it was probably best for Marianne to know the story of the old woman, of the sheep, and of the voices that he had heard in his head. When he finished telling it, however, she gazed at him in the same manner as before.
“I knew that you were a bit odd”¦” she began.
“A bit odd?” Jaffey was taken aback. “This isn\’t odd! This is a curse!”
Marianne nodded. “I\’ll give you that. But I\’ll not give you leave to go terrorizing all the neighbors with”¦whatever that was.”
“So what are we to do, then. Doing nothing so far has got us nowhere!”
Marianne shrugged and lifted an eyebrow. “I guess we don\’t raise goats or sheep anymore.”
And that was that.
Or at least, both of them thought so. But sure enough, as the goats grew weaker and weaker and began to die, Jaffey had his doubts. Finally there were just two left — the two that had always been the most especially hardy, and even they were sickly, ribs poking out, weak bleats, thinning coats. It was on a sunny afternoon that Jaffey was leaning on his garden hoe, chewing his lip and watching the two of them graze pitifully that he caught a dark shape moving out of the corner of his eye.
The old woman.
He lunged toward her as she was drawing her brown corduroy pack around her body to the front. She was quick, though, and darted away. Around the barn he chased her — how could she move so fast? — until he could bear it no longer. He stood in one place…
…and the wailing prayer came forth again, stopping the old woman in her tracks. Snarling, she made a dash for the nearest window and Jaffey stalked toward her awkwardly, still howling his prayer. It was not made up of words, but neither did it come from a string of awkward vowels. There were ups and downs and crows and ululations and it stopped and started and stopped and started again. It sounded like fourteen or fifteen roosters, or what roosters would sound like, could they crow backwards and just barely out of unison.
There was a weight — a hand — on Jaffey\’s shoulder and he whirled, knocking the shape down. Gazing down, horrified, he ceased praying.
Marianne lay on the ground, disbelieving and in shock. Backing away, Jaffey spluttered even fewer intelligible syllables than his prayer had contained as she rose to her feet and ran toward the house.
The Delmarva Peninsula is that little lump of land hanging off the south end of Jersey, or — if you like to avoid Jersey — the southeast end of Pennsylvania. It is thus named because of the three states that claim part of it: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. I have spent the last five days in the great state of Delaware and, as penance for writing so sporadically, I hope you will accept a bit of fiction.
This short story bears explanation, however. There is a man down the road from my dear friends who walks around his fields, praying over his sheep, at least once or twice every day, usually in the mid to late afternoon. I was out walking over spring break and was startled when I heard him, but then I had a few ideas…
It was bearing down on him like a thousand pounds of moist, salty sea air. He knew that he should kneel and let it in but he dared not; not in front of all these people. The respectable men of the town, even the mayor . . . none of them would understand what seemed to be happening in and around him.
A torrent of tempting emotions — a slightly melodramatic way to describe his situation, yes. But those were the words that popped into his writer\’s mind as he closed his eyes so tightly a purple mist of pain spread behind them. What was so tempting, besides the need to speak? To shout? To make his fear known?
His wife could see how he rocked as the leader\’s words made crescendos and diminuendos out of the names of the Lord that only he knew. Safety for all and deliverance from Satan, blessings and outpourings and confirmations of the Spirit . . . oh Father that we may glorify You please be with us in this moment . . . the words were less and less determinable as the prayer went on . . .
And that was the first time the cry burst out of the man\’s lips. It was inhuman; a howl: there was no other description. Five, six, seven, eight seconds, and silence.
The room was still. The instruments had broken off mid-measure — the musicians even were not quite used to this shrill an expression. A few beats and they began again awkwardly, the mood broken.
The man who had shouted — Jaffey was his name — slumped down in his pew, embarrassed beyond belief.
Jaffey had bought a herd of goats the week before…if two dozen goats were supposed to be called a herd anyway, the wife had remarked. He had been unable to explain the purchase when he came home, but they were well off and she had the children to worry about, and he the farm. So she raised her eyebrows, pointedly mentioned that he\’d have to build a bigger pen, and kept sewing.
It was later that day — the day he bought the goats — that Jaffey was hauling water and his world changed. He dropped the bigger bucket after an awkward placement of his foot on the wet rock and went, cursing, to retrieve it from the fast-moving river. He ran, limping, along the bank until he figured that he was far enough ahead of the bucket, then jumped into the icy water and waited for it to float downstream. He had just caught it in his hands when he noticed the grizzled old woman watching him from the bank.
“H– hello?” Jaffey stuttered, the water making it hard to stand.
“Don\’t let them out of your sight,” the stranger said.
“Let . . . who? What?” Jaffey remained as still as possible, thinking that he had misheard.
“He\’ll come to separate them out — the sheep and the goats. Don\’t let them out of your sight . . . he\’ll come to separate them.”
Thoroughly spooked, Jaffey walked towards the opposite bank. The woman repeated her lines without breaking her nervous, finger-twitching stare. As he climbed out of the river, her voice rose.
“The sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats! He\’ll come to separate them; the sheep and the goats!” she spoke rhythmically.
“Ma\’am?” Jaffey asked uneasily, not sure what to do. “Are you . . . all right!”
She was frantically murmuring, though the occasional word broke out in a shout. “The SHEEP and the goats he\’ll COME to separate them don\’t let THEM OUT of your SIGHT the sheep and the GOATS the sheep and — LET ME GO!”
Jaffey had grasped her tightly by the shoulder to still her, but she turned on him like a cornered cat, and she indeed had feline intentions. By the time Jaffey lay on the ground, dazed and in pain, she had scratched nearly every square inch of his exposed skin. He could still hear her, though, as she retreated. She called back to him, spitefully.
“Don\’t let them OUT OF YOUR SIGHT!”
Originally published October 2, 2007.
Clifford Avenue points west and downtown towards the gorge in Rochester — you can follow it with your eyes and end up staring uncertainly at the skyscraper-ish buildings rising nobly out of the city. They attempt to shake off the grease of the neighborhoods and stretch their tinted windows up to the sky, where the tint is enough that free air is all that matters. Miles upon miles of sky do a great deal for the skyscrapers, and for those who dwell inside.
But outside those windows is a whole other world that I have just come to know. A world within the city where uncertainty is life, where — despite Latino ascendancy — the Latino neighborhoods still rotate aimlessly around a center of poverty, crime, and fear. It is part of any city, the suburbanite might say, so what can we do?
I am as guilty as any suburbanite, even though I’ve never lived in any sort of housing development or suburb, of having this thought run rampant around my mind, twisting any compassion or motivation I might have for those who live their lives in the urban rut. Even in 2002, when I was blessed enough to have the city of the third world brought to my immediate attention — in an Iquitos marketplace, the immediate is all there is: sights, smells, tastes — even then, I do not think I really understood what the grime of the city is.
To me, then, it was sheer culture. Iquitos, Peru was distant even when I dug my toes into the black selva dirt. Certainly, the culture was amazing and I have since realized how much it really was my first love, but that does not take away from the fact that the cities have always been places that I feared. Too loud, too many people, too many problems that could never be solved.
Last weekend, nothing really spectacular happened, at least not by most standards. I hung out at a Salvation Army (a ‘Salvo,’ as I have called them for a long while) with 40 or 50 kids, played fÃºtbol for upwards of three hours, proved that Houghton has not improved my ability to swing my hips to Latin music at all, and chatted in unmistakably poor Spanish as much as I could. I understood about 60 percent of a sermon and took communion with people from more countries than I ever have at the same time.
How disorganized my love for Latino culture has been.
I feel that I can only clarify this statement by saying that the grime of the city has officially taken up residence on my knees — and it is only by embracing this culture and all its needs that I can truly love it, truly pray for it, and truly be in it and of it (someday!).
Grime is unpleasant and ugly and socially unacceptable, but it is there. And those who live with it are just as qualified as any suburbanite to receive God’s love and ours.
On Saturday I probably spent the better part of an hour in one print center or another on the Houghton campus. They’ve put one in the library now, which allows one to effectively hermit oneself away there for hours upon hours upon days at a time. (Perhaps days takes it a bit far, but hyperbole is a perfectly acceptable literary device, as far as I’m concerned.) The other, more commonly used (and crowded) print center is in the basement of the Campus Center, right next to Java 101, the closest thing in Allegany County to a Starbucks.
Last night I got a coffee from a Buffalo Starbucks with my ministry team buddies and, although it was quite the delicious mint mocha frap, I got the feeling that I always get when I drink coffee-confections outside of Java 101: I am a little bit homesick.
Perhaps a bit of further explanation is warranted. My freshman year, I had vowed that coffee should ne’er cross my lips, that I would remain unaddicted to caffeine, that I hadn’t the money to waste on drinking water strained through ground legumes (ok…so I don’t know if the cacao bean is a legume).
All this changed one late night during a Cultural Anthropology paper, but that was as much my fault for giving into Chloe’s French Press-made hazelnut deliciousness as anything else. And that became a Java 101 caramel macchiato. And that became a few pounds of Schuill’s from Grand Rapids, MI. And that became the cold hard fact: the coffee machine in our townhouse belongs to yours truly.
Setting my love for (good!) coffee aside — the reason I brought up Java 101 is to discuss how a place can have such a deep meaning for me. Recent conversations have brought to my attention that I tend to value places for themselves — even if what I’ve come to love about them is solely based on experiences I have had there, or people I met there.
Java is a prime example. My good experiences there include reading numerous letters while munching blueberry muffins (courtesy of Houghton College Church Relations), and really thinking all was right with the world. I’ve written several espresso-fueled papers on the little breakfast bar, my feet kicking in a rhythm much faster than my thoughts seem to move.
The Lanthorn literary journal coffeehouse readings/concerts, live music, my first exposure to Regina Spektor, excellent conversation dates, salsa contests — all of these contribute to my feeling homesick for a place where the coffee isn’t always the best, the baristas are sometimes rather awkward, and where, if I’m not careful, I’ll get Brit-wittily insulted a few times during the 11 a.m. hour by Dr. Pearse (Java is a favorite haunt of his at this time, as well).
It might be nostalgia, or rose-colored glasses, or whatever silly feminine attachment you might identify: I simply can’t tell the difference. But I do know that for quite a while, when I think of a good coffeeshop, the image that will pop into my mind is of Java 101.
My roommate, amazing and talented fellow Bweinh!tributor and non-New Yorker, Chloe, recently gave a mini-speech on college students who can’t seem to stay out of debt. Her introduction included a short list of “traditional college activities,” like eating bad cafeteria food, longing for the outside world, wincing at the price of books in the bookstore, staying up all night — well, perhaps her speech really only included the last two.
This comes to mind because when I woke up this morning at 5:00 — a truly ungodly hour — another one of my housemates greeted me as I made my way into the living room. Our exchange went something like this:
“Mwrffff . . . good morning,” I said.
“How long have you been up?”
“A while…” Her voice is definitely way too awake for this time of day.
“Did you get up just now?” Isn’t it wonderful how my brain doesn’t process information this early?
“No, I just started working last night and I thought, well, I might as well get this all done now so I don’t have to do it tomorrow. I didn’t exactly, um, go to bed…”
Ay, there’s the rub. That most noble of college traditions — the all-nighter — is hard to avoid over four years of higher education. Now, there are doubters (and good students) everywhere, but I think that the vast majority of students have, at one desperate time or desperate measure, deeply contemplated the question, “Is it really more important for me to sleep, or to do my work?”
Or perhaps this rationale: “If I do it now, I can get a TON of sleep tomorrow.”
This one is always popular: “I do have quite a bit of coffee in that decrepit old crate in my closet…”
Whatever the reason, I would like to celebrate all those who have felt the pull of the all-nighter. It really is rather romantic, in a strictly gothic sense, to stay up all night, working like an angsty madman or tortured genius. And oh, the completeness one feels upon finishing a project, whether it be a first (or final) draft of a paper, an outline, a problem set, or even a lab. There really is nothing like it.
So all of you — students and non-students, teens and twenty-somethings, adults and those who wish you weren’t — if you know what it is like to endure the long, lonely, thrilling hours of an all-nighter, I declare today as your day to celebrate.
Federico GarcÃÂa Lorca was a Spanish author who lived from 1898 until 1936, when he was executed by members of the Nationalist party for reasons that may have included his political affiliations, his homosexuality, and the content of his works. Although this beginning may sound a little bit (okay, a LOT) similar to a poorly written biographical piece (read: Wikipedia article), it’s not really what I’m on about. I think that to understand the play Yerma, one needs a bit of background knowledge on the struggle and unpopularity of its author.
Yerma takes place in rural Spain at the turn of the last century, and focuses on the struggles of its titular character whose name means, quite literally, “barren land.” Yerma is married to Juan, a farmer, and encounters many townspeople (never given names more specific than “First Girl” or “Second Sister-in-law”), as well as a few other central characters: VÃctor, MarÃÂa, the Old Woman, and Dolores.
The plot hinges on a single, bitter fact: Yerma has no children. In a day where a woman’s purpose in life stemmed from her role in the home raising her children, she is inÃºtil, useless, and nothing that she can say or do for Juan gets through to him. Her desperation is markedly worse every time we encounter her, causing her to hallucinate sounds or smells, to refuse to speak to her sisters-in-law who come to stay with her family, or to sneak out of her home at night to meet Dolores, a woman of reputed spiritual/magical skill.
Without giving away the end of the play, I wanted to share this beautiful peace of prose-poetry-drama with any Bweinh! readers who enjoy gems of literature. The play is, in my opinion, one of the best I have read in my lifetime for a few reasons.