Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Awasiwi Odinak

When i was younger, if you had asked me what i wanted to be when i grew up, i would have told you that i wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I started reading the Little House books in elementary school and fell completely in love with the vivid descriptions of delicious homemade food, the wild adventures in the woods and on the prairies, the strong-willed and independent heroine, and the pioneer lifestyle.

At the time, we were living in the old house. I was enchanted by the seemingly boundless fields surrounding us. I liked civilization well enough, but being intensely introverted, i felt more comfortable in a place away from other people. I liked knowing that i could run until i was exhausted and still not see another person. I liked to look around me and see nothing but level fields, with trees far off in the distance. When Pa and Laura would stand together and gaze at the horizon, i could see the illimitable prairie in my mind's eye, and i too longed to explore it. I wanted to start walking, and keep going until i reached something new, something untouched by man.

I love to travel. I've been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in my life. I love even the boring parts, like four-hour layovers, and the inconvenient parts, like carrying my suitcases a mile to the train station. I love to fly, i love to drive, i love to take buses and trains, i love to sail and cruise.

Growing up in a small town, i quickly became accustomed to the idea that i would have to go places if i wanted to see things. There wasn't much to do where i lived; even going to the grocery store required a ten-minute car trip. The mall was forty minutes away, as was the nearest Walmart. And i didn't mind that. I lived far from the things of man, and to me, that meant peace and purity. The air was clean, the grass was fresh, and even the manure in the fields smelled almost sweet.

But then i discovered cities.

I'd been on field trips to DC, Baltimore, and Annapolis. I'd been shopping in Dover. I'd traveled to Chicago, Paris and Cologne. But those were always trips with a purpose. We saw the Holocaust museum in DC, as well as the Air and Space museum. We went to the mall in Dover to do our Christmas shopping. We delivered furniture to my cousin in Chicago. We climbed cathedral towers all over Europe.

When i was sixteen, my mother and i went to New York with my cousin and her mother. My cousin and i were both turning sixteen, and instead of a party, we took a weekend trip. Although i'd been a tourist in Europe, it was a trip of learning and culture. This trip was all about fun. We went to the city not because it was a place to learn about new cultures, or to see architecture, or because travel is broadening. We went to the city because cities are fun.

I fell in love with New York. I knew that Laura would have been horrified and disappointed, but i didn't care. New York City was like nothing i'd ever seen before, nothing i'd ever imagined. Movies and TV couldn't prepare me for the rush, the energy of being there.

I live in a city now, and i love it, but it's still not quite home. I miss clean horizons: views where all you can see, in every direction, is nature. No telephone poles, no cars or buildings, no people. Just water, or trees, or fields. Sometimes my need to see a clean horizon is so intense that i begin to feel suffocated. You know when you've been sitting at a desk all day and you start to feel twitchy? Like you just need to get up and walk around for a few minutes? That's how i feel nearly every day. But it's not just my body that longs for movement. It's my soul, too.

I walk a lot. I often walk four miles to my church, and i walk a mile each way to work and back nearly every day. I walk to the grocery store and back (another mile each way). I started walking because i don't have a car. I'm pretty practical, and i don't like to ask for help, so when i need to be somewhere, i just go. I don't freak out about how far it is or how long it will take. I get my ipod and some directions and start walking.

But walking is not just a way to get from point A to point B. It's also a way to keep my wanderlust in check. When my soul starts to get twitchy from being still and cramped for too long, i take it to find a clean horizon where it can breathe. When i start to feel claustrophobic from the people all around me, i go somewhere far from the things of man. Walking is the only thing that keeps me from selling everything and backpacking across Europe, or hitchhiking across the country. Sometimes i dream about leaving everything behind and becoming a nomad, seeing the whole world on my own terms. I want my only limits to be how far i can walk before i need to sleep (under the stars, of course).

In my head, i know that i can't just take off. And i know i wouldn't really like it after a while. I have friends, and work, and responsibilities here. And the reason i have those ties is because i like them. I like my cat. I like my books. I like my bed. I pay bills because it's worth it to me to ensure that i can keep my books and cat and bed. After about a week of being a homeless traveler, i'd be ready to return to civilization. But if i sold everything and left, there would be no going back.

So i walk.

Monday, July 18, 2011

the old house

From the age of four to the age of thirteen, i lived in a new house, built in a new development. It used to be farmland, and our property still bordered a soybean field. When we moved in, we were the only house in the development. By the time we moved out, there were four or five distinct neighborhoods and no more empty lots.

I had my own room. When we moved in, my brother was two and my mom was pregnant with one of my sisters. I lived in a tiny room downstairs while the upstairs was being finished. In the nine years we lived there, both of my sisters were born, and Aunt Sis moved in. It was the first place that my whole family all lived in together. My sisters shared an upstairs room, and i had another upstairs room to myself.

Nostalgia has a way of making everything rose-colored. The house was not great. It was not very pretty, the upkeep was expensive, we had occasional problems with mice and spiders, the openness of our surroundings left us vulnerable to some very damaging storms (including tornadoes and wind storms), and we lived outside of the delivery zone of all of the restaurants.

But it was home.

What i remember most about that house was its seemingly endless capacity. There were only four of us when we moved in, but the house often sheltered up to ten people at a time, and seven of us lived there full-time. I had cousins who were homeschooled with us and therefore practically lived with us, we had several exchange students, and of course there was Aunt Sis. Whenever we had a need, the house met it. When Aunt Sis moved in, we added on a garage with an apartment over it for her. When we got our first exchange student, he took my room and i moved into an alcove in my sisters' room, which was curtained off into a tiny but servicable space that belonged just to me. When we began homeschooling, we fixed up one part of the basement into a school room, complete with a huge dry erase board and lots of bookshelves. When my dad decided to start his own business, another part of the basement was set aside for his office. Yet another basement space became my brother's bedroom a few years later. And there was still space in the basement for storage, laundry, and a play-space under the stairs.

There was a secret room in my closet, under the eaves. There were apple trees whose fruit was always bitter, though whether this was due to the youth of the trees or the impatience of the harvesters (my siblings and i) was never satisfactorily determined. There were blueberry trees whose fruit was always sweet and plentiful. There was a swingset, a pool, and a plastic playhouse that we happily deconstructed and rebuilt into several exciting new configurations over the years.

I've lived in houses that i liked better, but none with quite the same magical ability to expand to meet our needs. I've lived in houses with better memories, but none with more nostalgia. I've lived in houses where more significant life changes took place, but none with untarnished memories of my whole family together. We moved to a new house a few years before the divorce took place. That old house is the first and last one where we all lived together.

One day, i will have a new home. My husband and i will argue over paint samples, and will hang new light fixtures, and will mow our lawn. We'll install a doggy door, and fix up rooms for our kids, and decide where to put the swimming pool and the swingset. But there is a part of me that will always know that my home is in the old house. I can only hope that my future home will have half the welcomingness of that one, will have half the willingness to expand. I can only hope that my future children will know that there is at least one place in the world that is limited only by their imaginations.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

still waiting for my Hogwarts letter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published in 1998. I was eight years old. I was aware of it, being a frequent vistor of libraries and book stores, but it wasn't until i saw one of my older cousins reading it that my interest was really piqued. I was reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare at the time (this is really true; i have always read at a pretty advanced level, though to be fair i should admit that i was also reading the American Girls books and a fair amount of Beverly Cleary), and didn't have time to devote to something if i didn't know i would love it.

I don't think i really started reading it, though, until about 2000. At this point, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was out, so when i had torn through 'Sorcerer's Stone', i didn't even have to wait to start 'Chamber of Secrets'.

Anyway, i was hooked. As a child with an overactive imagination, raised on Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars, and the Chronicles of Narnia (not to mention the Bible, which can out-crazy any epic fantasy narrative), i had a natural love for fantasy and magic stories. And as, you know, a human being, i had a natural love for the underdog.

In the early years, the books came fast and smooth. 2001 saw both the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the release of the film version of Sorcerer's Stone. I went to a midnight showing in the local theater (it was tiny and dirty, but the owners were smart enough to know that this one movie alone would bring in nearly as much cash as every other movie shown that year) with my parents, my three siblings, my great aunt, four or five cousins, five or six aunts and uncles, and a handful of exchange students. Afterwards, my siblings and cousins and i spent hours debating the various features of the film: things we liked, things we didn't like, things that were better than we could ever have hoped for, key elements in the book that had been mercilessly chopped. "They left out the scene where the milkman gives Aunt Petunia the eggs through the window and they're full of letters?! I can't believe they didn't do that part!!!!" Our parents began threatening not to take us to the next movie, so we began conducting our critical reviews in whispers.

Like many others, my parents went through the "Harry Potter is satanic!" scare. We were forbidden to read them. We read them anyway. Once we got my mom to start reading them, she caved. She saw that the "satanic" elements were greatly exaggerated, that the occultism was no worse than what you saw in the average Disney movie, and that the heroes, while flawed, were still magnificent human beings who taught us all many valuable lessons. Also she was hooked.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published in 2002. The movies came out predictably one year after another. And then the unthinkable happened.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was not expected to be published until 2004. Although we still had the movies to console us, we had to wait two whole years for the next book. My family are all cinophiles, but we are bibliophiles first, and we all know that the book is almost always better than the movie (Bambi is one notable exception. As terrible as the movie was, the book was unspeakably awful. One of the few books that i simply could not bring myself to finish.)

To make matters worse, it was now 2002, and i was twelve years old. My Hogwarts letter had never arrived.

For the uninitiated, i should explain that Hogwarts students received a letter inviting them to attend Hogwarts to learn magic. This letter generally arrived near the eleventh birthday, as a Hogwarts education began at that tender age. Now, i have a late birthday, so i thought in the back of my mind (where i allow all such irrational fantasies free rein) that perhaps my letter was merely delayed a year. As my twelfth birthday came closer and closer, i even began to indulge in wild fantasies (creeping steadily out of their designated mental corner and into the more ordered and rational parts of my brain) that perhaps American magical academies worked differently than British ones, and maybe i would not start at the American equivalent of Hogwarts until i was twelve. For such a young (and clearly crazy) person, i was startlingly rational and lucid about my fantasies.

I clung to this American-schools-are-different-from-British-ones hope until i was . . . Well, we'll get to that in a minute.

'Order of the Phoenix' was finally on bookshelves, and my family snatched up our copies and spent the next few days trying to tie our shoes, eat our meals, and do our schoolwork while buried in the 870 pages. This endeavor was not wildly successful, but since everyone else in the house was similarly employed no one really noticed or cared. The movies came out regularly enough, with varying levels of faithfulness to the text, and we found further distractions in the release of the Lord of the Rings films.

And then tragedy struck again. The penultimate installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, would not be released until 2006.

If you think that a sixteen year old high school senior should have other things to occupy her mind, you probably never checked your mailbox with your heart in your throat hoping to see the heavy parchment envelope with the purple seal, and are therefore likely incapable of understanding or appreciating any of this post. How did you make it this far?

Worse yet, the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was not published until the summer of 2009. I was home from my freshman year of college, and i read the last ever Harry Potter book with fear and trembling.

It is now 2011. Thirteen years after the first book was published in the U.S. I have spent more than half my life waiting for the next Harry Potter book or movie. I find it difficult to imagine a world where new Harry Potter books and movies will not be made (though i suppose there is always the desperate hope of a terrible re-make in thirty years or so). I have collected merchandise, i have knitted Gryffindor scarves, and i have even dressed as Hermione for Halloween. I once wrote a letter to J. K. Rowling. My siblings and cousins and i have spent countless hours discussing and debating this world. I have had Harry Potter-themed dreams, including one with a very exciting Voldemort showdown. (I almost got him.)

It was only when the last book was published that it really hit me: i am probably never going to get my Hogwarts letter. Probably.

I've been told (and have even thought) that J. K. Rowling is not a great writer. I don't care. Could the entire series have benefitted immensely from a good editor who was not afraid of a red pen? Undoubtedly. Have i ever contemplated being that editor? Absolutely. But the intricacies of her plotting leave me awed. And whatever else you can say about her and her writing, you can't deny that Harry Potter changed the world. An entire generation grew up at Hogwarts. This was the greatest cultural phenomenon since Star Wars, and i know i am not the only adult in the world who has not quite given up hope on that long-awaited Hogwarts letter.

Friday, July 8, 2011

roots and wings

I spent the first seventeen years of my life on the Eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It's a beautiful area of the country, with Colonial houses, majestic rivers, sailboats, wildlife, cornfields, star-studded skies, and lots of rednecks.

I loved growing up there. I loved living near the river, smelling the marsh mud (nostalgia always smells sweet, whatever the reality) and watching the herons. I loved the feeling of endless space, of clean horizons. The corn and soybean fields went on forever, except where interrupted by deer or some picturesque trees. I loved eating fresh fish and venison. I loved eating corn-on-the-cob from my great aunt's garden, and steamed crabs from the Bay. I loved the black-eyed susans, the brick sidewalks, the heavy humidity, the scrapple, the biscuits with dried beef gravy, and the Ravens. (How can you not like a team named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe?)

I love my family. My mom's side of the family is large, loud, and invasively affectionate. They will feed anyone who enters the door (or even anyone who comes near the property line; my grandmother has frequently made plates of sandwiches, watermelon, and leftover cake for the garbage men). They all live within a twenty-mile radius of one another. They all talk at the same time. They all bicker constantly. They all pry into my private life. Several of them are outstanding cooks. They have all given me money at least once, whether as a gift for graduation/birthday/other special occasion or just because i am young and sometimes tight on cash. I have crashed on their couches, bummed rides to work with them, accepted hand-me-down furniture from them, politely turned down hideous hand-me-down furniture from them, and become friends with them on Facebook. And i have only had to put one of them on restricted access so far.

I love my immediate family, too. But my dad lives in Delaware. My brother is in Afghanistan. One of my sisters is only a year away from graduating and starting college, and the other one is seven and a half years younger than i am. As we both grow older, that gap matters less and less, but twenty-one and fourteen are still worlds apart. My mother's recent marriage to a guy i barely know makes the house even more awkward to be in. I no longer have my own bedroom, so i stay in my brother's room with all of his half-packed things from college and childhood.

And after a while, those endless horizons start to feel oppressive. Sure, you have no limits, but that also means that you have nowhere to go. My town has one movie theater. The second nearest one is thirty miles away. The nearest mall and Walmart are in the same town as the second movie theater. There are no museums, no concert venues, no public transportation, and no Starbucks.

Yeah. That's actually the whole town.

I have spent the last four years of my life near Boston.

I can see Boston from my roof (though not as clearly as in the above image). There are four coffee shops within walking distance of my apartment, as well as two cupcake shops, several bars and restaurants, and a Marshalls. And a five-minute walk brings me to the train, which can take me anywhere i want in Boston. I can go to theaters and museums, attend concerts, shop, tour the historic Red Line, eat fabulous food, and pretend that i go to Harvard. This 4th of July, my roommates and i hosted a cookout which culminated in watching fireworks from our roof, over the Boston skyline.

My family isn't so very far away, and they're not even in a different time zone, so it's not terribly difficult to talk to or visit them. The only real difficulty is that, as i mentioned before, i'm not the only one who no longer lives in my mom's house. But we make it work.

I have lots of friends here. I have a job here (for now, anyway). I'm enrolled in grad school. I have a church family. I have a boyfriend. I have a cat.

There are a lot of things that keep me here. There are a lot of memories, a lot of possibilities, and a lot of really delicious cupcakes across the street from my apartment.

But sometimes, when i'm sitting on the roof and gazing at the Boston skyline, i hunger for stars. Sometimes, when i'm at the beach with friends, i think of Maryland blue crabs steamed with Old Bay and my mouth waters. I long for thunderstorms that make the windows rattle and that last for hours. I long for humidity so intense you can barely move. I long for old men in pickup trucks who wave (in a friendly, non-creepy way) when they see you out for a walk. I long for my family, blowing my personal bubble to smithereens with their very presences. I long for goose-calls in the fall, for Queen Anne's lace in the summer, for mild winters where school is canceled because of forecasted flurries, for springtime full of wildflowers.

My roots run deep and my wings reach far. At times i feel like i will be torn in two by the opposing forces.

When i was sixteen, my dad took me out to dinner to give me a blessing, Old Testament-style. He said a lot of really great things, but the one that stuck was that i was a willow tree. He told me that willows look beautiful and graceful and delicate, but that their beauty conceals an iron strength. The roots of willow trees often force their way through concrete barriers into swimming pools or drainage pipes, all in a quest for water. They are tough enough to break mower blades. They are very tenacious and difficult to remove.

My dad said, "You are a willow. You won't let anything get between you and the things that you want and need. You will break through any barrier, block any blow, and hang on to the very end." The way that he talked about roots made them sound almost like wings. I liked that.

I have written before about my swallow tattoo, about how the swallow uses its wings to return home. When i read about swallows, their wings sounded almost like roots. I liked that.

I don't know what the future holds. I can't say that i will never again live in Maryland. I can't say that i will live in Massachusetts forever. I can say that, wherever i live, i will be torn. I will feel out-of-place and homesick. I will dig in my roots, desperate for sustenance and refreshment, and i will spread my wings, longing for the next horizon.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gender Equality

Women have to be everything all at once. We must be soft and warm and nurturing. We must be hard and cold and commanding. We must be "feminine", and glory in shoes and cosmetics and flowers and throw pillows. We must be "masculine", and glory in athletics and competition and information.

Women must be passionate about their academic and professional goals. We must desire to excel, striving for perfect grades, promotions, distinctions, awards, and "success". We must also be passionate about our families and homes, wanting to raise our children, clean our houses, and cook our meals.

Career women are condemned for deserting their homes and hiring nannies and housekeepers, or sending their children to daycare. It is said that they are cold and heartless cunts, who care more for their own personal gains than for their families. They should be ensuring that their children do not eat too much junk food or spend too much time playing video games, and they are directly responsible for all cases of juvenile delinquency and childhood obesity in America.

Housewives are mocked for never doing anything with their college degrees, assuming they obtained them at all. It is said that they are silly, empty-headed disgraces to Rosie the Riveter, and Susan B. Anthony, and all the rest of the Sisterhood. They could have done great things with their lives, and instead they chose to dust furniture and change diapers.

Here is the truth: every woman is different. Some women, though they dearly love their children and their homes, find their ultimate fulfillment outside of the house. They work hard to support their families, and are glad to be shining examples to their children (especially their daughters) of all that Woman can be. And some women, though they have their hobbies and interests outside of the home, find their ultimate fulfillment in dusting furniture and changing diapers. They understand that they are a living, breathing, shining example to their children (especially their daughters) of loving self-sacrifice, and of Family, and of how Woman can use her gifts of intellect, athleticism, and so on to create a perfect home environment for husband and children.

Men are not allowed to be anything at all, ever. Men cannot be too soft and warm and nurturing, or they will be called names. They cannot be too hard and cold and commanding, or they will be accused of bad fatherhood/domineering over their female coworkers and subordinates. A man who is secure and confident must surely be using Freudian stratagems to intimidate women so that they will not be a threat to him in the workplace. A man who is gentle and kind must surely be less than a man.

If a man is passionate about his academic and professional goals, he is an automaton who has no interest in culture, or children, or romance. He simply wants to outdo everyone else so that he can feed his own ego, and he cares nothing about anyone else in the world, and he probably has some sort of social disorder, and is very likely a homophobe.

If a man is passionate about home and family life, he is a pussy who has allowed his wife to emasculate him, forcing him to buy a minivan and cook oatmeal, and probably wear a frilly apron while he sings the baby to sleep. He has no pride, no ambition, and no masculinity.

Here is the truth: every man is different. Some of them find their ultimate fulfillment at home, caring for their children, cooking meals for their families, and attending PTA meetings. They understand the immense role that they are playing in their childrens' lives, by being a constant example of loving authority, guidance, and fun. They love to play games with their children, they don't mind reading the same story again and again, and they can imagine no greater pride and joy than watching the first few wobbly steps, bike rides, alphabets, dances, pitches, brush strokes, and so forth. This is their greatest accomplishment: their children can run fast, jump high, write smoothly, paint brightly, sing loudly, and dance with joy. And some men find their ultimate fulfillment outside of the home, knowing that the work they do supports their families. They are glad to do some good in the world, to bring about changes in their small spheres of existence, to follow their passions and accomplish their dreams of success and personal growth.

And on a side note, a woman who is interested in sports or business or math is not automatically assumed to be a lesbian. Why should a man who is interested in art or music or theater automatically be assumed gay? A gay man can work in construction, or run for public office, or practice law or medicine, or teach chemistry. And a straight man can perform on Broadway, or dance ballet, or write poetry, or direct community theater. Let's not assume. We all know what that does to you and me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


I have a confession to make.

A few months ago, i bought myself a Kindle.

I know, i know. It's an abomination. Reading is a very sensuous experience. You can feel the feathery, silky pages under your fingers and the pressure of the book in your hands. You smell the rich and varied scents of paper, ink, and binding, ranging from the intoxicating freshness of a brand-new book (which, incidentally, is exactly what my boyfriend smells like), to the dusty, leathery musk of a used one. You see the typeface, carefully selected for that particular text, and you see the covers, the myriad shades of white according to the type of paper used and the age of the book, the tiny imperfections of the page, and the smudges in the margins of a book well-read.

A Kindle has none of that. All typefaces are converted into one, and while it is clear and easy to read, it has none of the individuality of a paper text, nor can "hand-written" notes in the story be seen in their original glory. It smells very faintly of plastic and the fake leather of the case. There is no variety in the smooth perfection of the virtual pages, and even underlining or comments in the margins create only a minimal disturbance in the pristine, black-and-white visual. It is clean, sterile, and heartless.

I have also been accused of contributing to the downfall of the publishing companies. This is just nonsense. First of all, i will still buy paper texts. The Kindle is mostly for travel and beach fiction. Secondly, the publishing companies are the ones who create and distribute the ebooks. Finally, most of the books on my Kindle are in the public domain, meaning that they are free and can be found on a number of websites (my personal favorites are Amazon and Gutenberg). Sure, publishing companies make money off of them, but only by reprinting existing editions with fancier covers (and yes, i covet those with all my soul, but i am not currently in a position to slap down $10 on a shiny new Jane Austen novel, when i already own three copies of it.) Furthermore, many of my Kindle ebooks are simply free digital copies of books that i already own in paper format, and that i paid good money to a publishing company to obtain. I just want a digital backup so that i can take my favorite books on the road or to the beach, and so that i will always have a copy, no matter how many paperbacks i read into confetti.

Why did i buy a Kindle? A few different reasons. First, i live in Massachusetts, and my family lives in Delmarva. When i go home for holidays, i spend lots of time either in an airport or in a bus/car. Then i get to the house, where everyone is at work or school. I have no car, and no job/school/friends to occupy me, and we are ten miles from the nearest shopping district. So i bring lots of books with me. Meaning i have to lug heavy suitcases around everywhere and i have no room for clothes. A Kindle means that i can bring thousands of books with me, in a package smaller than most paperbacks and weighing hardly more than my phone.

Next, i'll be starting grad school in the fall. Most Kindle ebooks cost less than $25. So i can buy one Kindle for $140 and a bunch of textbooks for $25 or less, or i can buy a bunch of textbooks for $100-300 each. I know that many textbooks can be bought used for much cheaper, and that is indeed how i got through my undergraduate education. But here is something else to consider: i find that i never really need to read my textbooks. Sometimes, sure, they are helpful, but for the most part i find that lecture notes are perfectly adequate. Kindle allows you to download a sample (usually the first chapter) of any book for free. If you want more, you can buy the whole book. If not, you can delete it. No harm, no foul. This means that i will only have to buy the books i'll actually use.

Finally, i have grown increasingly concerned with my usage of paper. Everyone is trying to be more green these days, but there are some areas where you just can't cut corners. For example, a hospital has to throw away all of their used tongue depressers, even if the person it was used on is perfectly healthy. They can't just sterilize it and reuse it. Hospitals use a lot of energy, water, and other resources, and no one in their right minds is suggesting that they cut any corners. Sure, they could maybe switch to more earth-friendly lighting, and one argument against keeping people on life support is that the resources keeping them in a vegetative state could be used to actually cure someone, but for the most part, every "waste" in a hospital is perfectly justified.

Now, i'm not saying that my artistic sensibilites are the same as open-heart surgery, but i am saying that i write better when i write by hand than when i write on a computer. I feel more comfortable writing by hand, or printing out a copy of a draft and editing it. I like to hold the pen in my fingers and feel the paper under my hand. I feel more connected to the work that way. So i use a lot of paper when i am writing. I try to use scrap paper when i can, and i recycle the old drafts, but there is still a lot of waste. So i cut corners in other places when i can. And there is simply no reason that i should buy a paper copy of a book that is in the public domain. There is no reason that i should buy a paper copy of beach fiction. There is no reason that i should buy a paper textbook.

My favorite books i will always own in physical form, whether purchased brand-spankin' new or lovingly used. I will read them until their bindings disintegrate and then i will buy a fresh copy. I will break their spines, dog-ear their pages, spill tea on their covers, and scribble incomprehensible notes in their margins. My cat will chew on their edges. They will be forgotten on trains, borrowed and never returned, faded by the sun, used to prop up wobbly table legs, and will fall off of moving trucks and be lost forever. And while i save up money for the coveted hardback copy with the decorative cover, i'll always have my digital backup.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God Grades on Effort

Some Christians treat Heaven like an exclusive college: we may not have to know all of the answers perfectly, but if we don't get good enough scores on our SATs, or if our GPA or class rank is too low, we won't get in. We work hard to make the cutoff, putting in extra credit work here and there in an effort to raise our scores. We evangelize, give to charity, attend church, pray, fast, and so on, and we piously say that we are storing up for ourselves treasures in Heaven, that our Reward will make all of this suffering and sacrifice worthwhile, that we are carrying our crosses and bearing our thorns for the glory of His name.

Some Christians, on the other hand, don't really spend that much time thinking about the afterlife. We know that it's there, and we are reasonably certain of our chances of getting there, but we don't worry about it beyond that. When we pray, we do so because we want to talk to God, not because we know that we are "supposed" to pray. When we do extra credit work, we do it because we care about other people and want to reach out to them in love, not because we are trying to get more points or win more souls to Christ. We just want to give of our plenty to those who are in need, whether that giving is in the form of money, time, or abilities.

When Jesus was asked to choose the greatest of the commandments, He said to love God with everything we have, and to love one another at least as well as we love ourselves. Now, He did give us lots of other instructions about how to go about loving God and people, but at bottom, everything He said comes back to those commandments. Love God, love people. We should love one another because we are all human beings, and we are all brothers and sisters in the human race. We are all made in God's image. You don't help your little sister tie her shoes because you think your mom will give you money for it (at least, most of the time you don't). You do it because she is your sister, and no matter how annoying it is to have to take care of her, and teach her how to do things, and delay your life to make sure that hers gets on track, you still love her (grudgingly, exasperatedly, deeply), because she is your sister.

(NB: Jesus did not say that we have to like everyone. Just that we have to love them. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said that the key to this passage is "loving as you love yourself". Think of the way you love yourself: you may not wake up every day thinking, "I am awesome. I wish I could spend more time with me. I am simply the coolest thing since sliced bread," but you still love yourself. You take care of yourself, not because you are awesome, but because you are you. You try to take care of your own best interests, to preserve your health and dignity, to make yourself happy and content. We should love one another in this way, even when we don't particularly want to be friends with one another.)

I don't think God worries too much about what your score is. I think He knows the difference between someone who is searching for Him and someone who is trying to find the right answer, and i think that He grades on effort, not on results. Consider 1 Samuel 16:7, where Samuel is trying to find the next King of Israel. He keeps guessing wrong, and God tells him not to fixate so much on how things look, but to pay attention to what is inside. In other words, don't tally the score, just look at the intent. Or look at Psalm 37:23-24, where the psalmist praises God's protection of His loved ones. We're going to make mistakes, but we're not going to totally implode, because God is protecting us. He knows the hearts of those who love Him.

In The Last Battle (this is a very C. S. Lewis-heavy post), Aslan has a conversation with a guy who has served Tash (a false, evil god) his whole life. Aslan reassures him of his place in Heaven, saying (this is a paraphrase): "I am so good that any good done in the world is done in my name. And Tash is so evil that any bad done in the world is done in his name. Once people start looking to do good for its own sake, they are really looking for me, and once they look to do bad for its own sake, they are really looking for Tash. You would not have looked so hard or so earnestly if it wasn't me you were looking for."

God isn't playing games. He's not going to keep you out of Heaven because you scored below a certain level, or because you didn't learn all of the required vocabulary, or because your letter of recommendation was not sufficiently impressive. He knows the hearts of those who are truly seeking Him, and He has promised that those who seek will find.