Bones and Breath: On Faulkner and Faith

After World War I, the United States fell into an economic depression. We could say that it fell into another kind of depression as well. A depression, or spiritual funk, stimulated by philosophical polarities of the day. Indeed, forty years had already passed since the German philosopher Nietzsche claimed it was logical to reason that “God is dead.” There were those supposed inconsistencies between religion and science. Perhaps not in mainstream culture, but perhaps in academic atmospheres and in the classrooms of its universities. Clashes between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the 1920s certainly existed.

The human mind reasoned: how could God be alive? He obviously didn’t have control; man’s advancement had pretty much been obliterated at that point. Humanistic philosophy claimed that man could build and maintain society. And then World War I happened. Engineers pointed to crowning achievements of man’s inventions. And then the Titanic sank. The Roaring Twenties turned into the Great Depression of the ‘30s. Upon whose heels came the terrifying and unimaginable World War II. Man’s ability for progress, once accepted as fact, was now in question.

100_7436

Humanity was not asking: Will I prosper? Rather, in fear, it was crying out: Will I survive?

William Faulkner in his 1950 Pulitzer Prize speech addresses this fear.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

The thing with which we must come to terms is what a society full of fear produces. Think about the time in which you were most afraid. How did it control your decisions? How did it control your productivity? How did it control your understanding of life?

This fear, I think, has the possibility to produce a hopeless fatalism, which Faulkner must have observed on the earth, seeping from below the ground of modern society. And to that trembling mind, he offers this reminder:

“the basest of all things is to be afraid.”

For, Faulkner reasons, when writers are crippled by fear, they forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Faulkner insists that a writer…

“…must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Here we notice Faulkner’s expression of mid 19th century Romantic sensibilities in his emphasis on the human heart. But there is his concurrent recognition of modernist skepticism, in which he says that humanity is basically saying: “The meaning of life? What meaning? What life? I’m fighting for my life, for control of my glands!”

100_7405

And Faulkner laments the effect of this perspective of survival. If a writer writes “of the glands,” Faulkner says,

“he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. …I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

This message of hope (and concurrent responsibility) certainly retains humanistic undertones. And maybe that is my point.

How utterly human is hope! We always hope even in the most impossible of situations! Why do children in concentration camps write poetry? Why does, as Maya Angelou asks, the caged bird sing?

Have you ignored that basic human emotion of hope? What is your mind’s perspective? What is your voice saying?

Is it fear that guides your voice? Is your voice a raucous squawk, your breath being crushed out of you, your voice simply the rush of oxygen into your lungs, a timid cry, an elemental whimper realizing that today you are, indeed, still alive? Or is your voice that of boredom, like SO MANY voices that we hear today… whether the tintinnabuli of posts, shares, likes, and updates… searching for meaning, trying to create meaning… where there is none?

Perhaps you are like those humans, of which, when contemplating life as if it’s the eternally inspirational sky, say only, “it has been wet… it has been windy… it has been warm.” You do not, as Victorian English art critic John Ruskin puts it, reject apathy against the mundane. Ruskin laments:

“Who, among the whole chattering crowd, can tell me of the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday? Who saw the narrow sunbeam that came out of the south and smote upon their summits until they melted and mouldered away in a dust of blue rain? Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?”

These are the observations only possible through a perspective of hope in the midst of the mundane.

Now imagine this human hope infused with that which is divine, a hope which comes when we release ourselves, allowing our stubborn selves to accept sonship, claiming that we are children of God, and finally accepting the benefits of divine childhood, living in an assurance, and if not assurance, then careful, guarded acknowledgment of the promises of God, those promises which say, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” Or those manifestations of belief: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Faulkner calls for hopeful artists.

Do you have a hope? Do you have a voice?

I pray you shall.

100_7740

Things I Didn’t Do in 2015: the Truth about Mediocrity

I’m a fixer. I have little tolerance for poorly-functioning organizations and irrelevant traditions. Yet I want to imagine myself as someone who is not afraid of daily sacrifice and short-term discipline that lead to long-term results. But do you ever get overwhelmed by your idea-bank, that list of things that need to be addressed and that list of ideas you might implement to address the challenges you’re facing? Sometimes, because of my perfectionistic tendencies, I can tend to think too small and only address a few things because I want to do everything perfectly. (Not “perfectly,” per se, but perform things with some level of thought, skill, and professionalism.) But do you ever feel like you don’t have the needed expertise, education, or even the proper personality or social skills needed to address the issue at hand?
Last year, I found myself in this situation only like a HUNDRED TIMES, and I’m learning that even though I’m 26 and supposed to know Stuff, it’s okay to experiment sometimes; I can guarantee you it will lead to important observations along the way.
Don’t be afraid of trying new things. I mean, there’s a possibility that you might learn something, but that’s just a risk you’ll have to take.

Things I did imperfectly in 2015, but at least I TRIED:

1. Motivate my students to get better grades and to enjoy school.
Um. So promising to take kids skiing may not be the best idea ever because, what do I know about organizing school trips that have the potential for breaking bones and being canceled due to the weather?
1502520_10152817866123110_6877329001550784318_n
Also, due to students’ requests, I organized a trip to a local mosque for visiting a weekly service. What do I know about Jumu’ah, and what should I tell my students about respectful interchanges with Muslims? Despite my lack of experience in these types of exchanges, we went anyway. Unsure what to do when we arrived, I told the boys to just “figure it out,” as they were whisked away to a different part of the building before we even left the parking lot. In the end, I found that doing something that doesn’t follow “my plan” and isn’t especially comfortable for me can be really beneficial to those around me, specifically my students.
This year I also implemented a “Blessing Slip” policy for my homeroom to complement our school’s “Demerit Slip” misbehavior policy. I haven’t implemented this policy perfectly, and I don’t know if it’s working how it’s supposed to (to motivate students to develop good character instead of just pointing out their faults), but it at least SOUNDS like a good idea.

2. Actually cooking.
So I made this salad.
20150117_185459
And a bunch Greek-seasoned meat in my crock pot. And I burned a bunch of salmon. But. I learned that if you don’t know much about cooking and if you don’t have a recipe, you really shouldn’t bother. So. 2016. Year of the Recipe. This is also the year of perfecting my French press brew. (I’m so bad at brewing freshly-roasted beans. But I have 365 days to keep practicing getting it perfect, so… things are looking up.)

3. Celebrating friends and family.
BOOM. Golden birthday this year!
IMG_20150404_083518

DSC_1677
I spend a lot of time talking to people in their 20s, and one thing that these (single) people talk a lot about is how our social groups aren’t very large or varied and how hard it is to develop community and fellowship for ourselves. Even though many of us do not have the support, friendships, or even church relationships that we always imagined, that does not mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the people we’re surrounded with, no matter how complicated those relationships are. We’re realizing that community is a beautiful thing that should be celebrated in all of its forms.
We are also realizing the immeasurable value of family. And that some of the best celebrations are the quiet, unpublished ones you share with family.

Because, seriously. Aren’t my parents SO CUTE.
20150426_124801
And. Even though the internet is OVERRUN with baby pictures. (Seriously, is that all that is on Instagram these days? Kid pictures?) I’m indulging myself and publishing pictures of MY CHILDREN, my ahDORable nieces.
Sabrina, the impossibly thick-haired infant.
1401378_10153551504593110_9138642869395497185_o
Cassidy, the incredible smart almost 2 year old, who already excels at imaginary play.
IMG_20151227_083118
She loves dollies and measuring spoons and pretending to feed people. She is also extremely gentle, patting her infant sister in the tenderest of ways. Honestly, my favorite memory from Christmas was when we were alone in the kitchen together, and even though I am very self-conscious being with children, I found that jumping as high as I can makes her smile, so I kept jumping and jumping, and it was so ridiculous, and I realized, Oh. This is what is beautiful about hanging out with a child. Letting go of your inhibitions to love them.

4. Exercising safely.
Failing to finish a marathon was one of my biggest disappointments this year, along with suffering a pretty significant running injury that is forcing me off the road for several months. Is it ironic that the year that I’ve focused the MOST on my health is the year that I’ve spent the most time in the doctor’s office? However, I’ve learned a ton about this specific running injury and other aspects of healthy living and healthy exercising.
Also, is it ironic that the year that we have an impossibly warm winter, I’m laid up from all exercise due to strict instructions from my podiatrist, and I’m missing what could have been the most active outdoor winter exercise season ever in my minimalist, gym-less existence? Friends, we will be having a moment of silence for all those missed winter runs.



Sigh. Thing I’m not doing in 2016: giving up on exercising safely. Weight room: I am looking at you. (Staying off one’s foot makes it nearly impossible to exercise (cheaply), but I hope to at least return to cross training soon! Also, to lifting all the [small] weights.)

5. Writing more.
Last spring had flown by, and I, realizing my poor blog had been neglected, quickly typed out a snarky little post and dashed off with friends to celebrate that another year of teaching was in the bag, and that day for the first time Shasta’s Fog BLEW UP with caring and crotchety commenters. While I’m not going to relive the finer points of the things I learned from THAT experience, I think it is safe to say that (1) it happened, and (2) I’m still writing despite.
I’m also occasionally sending pieces over to The Elkhart Truth as a community blogger, and while I’m not nearly as prolific as I want to be as a writer, I’m realizing that even small steps count, and really great things can come out of doing even a little bit, rather than doing nothing at all. For example, there I am, sending occasional pieces to an online county newspaper when Jeffrey Trachtenberg from the The Wall Street Journal reads my summer reading post on the Elkhart Truth page and reaches out to me and ends up quoting Shasta’s Fog in an article about Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman! It was a lesson to me that in writing, every little bit of effort counts.

In conclusion, I kind of hate this post, because I hate mediocrity, and this post is pretty much me telling you: it’s okay to be mediocre. But the point is: being mediocre is better than not being anything at all. Living imperfectly and asking for the grace of God to infuse your experiments is better than giving up and saying, “It’s impossible to expect change here.” Demanding small changes is better than suggesting monumental revolution at the expense of relationship. (Hmmm, do I believe that? It remains to be seen.)

I think this year, I’m in the balance. Between shielding blossoms in hope and crushing those growing blossoms, outfitted in rugged hikers, and climbing for higher ground.

In 2016, don’t stop.

IMG_1623