Just Say No to Netflix

Soooooo. How many times have YOU thought about the Resurrection this week?

Lent this year for me has been a personal oasis. Let me tell you why.

I’m not sure how to say this without you judging me, but: I haven’t done super well living by myself this year. I’ve sort of developed some bad habits…. including, but not limited to: silencing all cries of boredom and pain with media and food.

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My bad habits also include generally ignoring a specific request that God has asked of me—to intently seek Him for the next year-ish (that’s a long story, but it’s a very specific thing I know He wants me to be doing right now).

Back in January, I attempted to address a few of my bad habits through my New Year’s resolutions:

1. No social media until after school.
2. Run a marathon. (Already nixed because of my up-coming surgery this summer.

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But I decided that Lent would be a time where I could push even harder. For Lent, I decided to give up Netflix/Youtube/movies, plus snacking!

The reasons for this were two-fold. I knew that the amount of time of I was spending watching shows was not allowing me the time I needed for personal meditation and sorting out life. Second, watching shows plus snacking basically ALL THE TIME sent me on a suspicious trip to the scales. My heart sank, but I finally admitted what I had known all along: you just can’t say “Yes!” to whatever you want!

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So I decided a little discipline and fasting were in order. Plus, I really, really LOVE celebrating Lent! For one, it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today.

Anyway, Lenten fast = easier said than done! The first week was PAINFUL. I didn’t grow up watching TV, but in the past couple of years, Netflix has made it really easy to get addicted to shows, and a quiet house plus a solo dinner makes it easy to watch a show (or two, or five). (There you go again, judging me.)

For the first week, I whined a LOT. To my family, out-of-state. If you find yourself having the same withdrawal symptoms (irritability, grouchiness, general laziness, mild anger), call a loved one. They will be more than happy to deliver a swift verbal kick in the pants, tell you to quit your griping, that you DO have bad habits, and good riddance to them! (My sweet family.)

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Despite how hungry I was the first week (me: “You mean I actually have to cook decent MEALS?”), I admitted (only silently to myself, of course), that I suddenly had so much time for cleaning! Dishes, dishes! Scrubbing the sink! And, since I was banned from social media, I had time to listen to a couple of apologetics debates during those dishes!

I learned I needed to eat better meals, and then just gulp water if I was feeling hungry. Not related to Lent, but more related to that scales trip, I also decided to hit the workouts hardcore. Again, these were SO SAD. The first week I was literally crying while lifting weights because of how much I did not want to lift! (Oh, Esther. It’s just one small little death.) However, it’s great to already feel results after just two weeks of weights, cross training, and core. Not to mention a few runs here and there because: spring!

I also found that even though I chose to do Episcopalian style Lent (you can cheat on Sundays), I found I didn’t want to! I had carved a new groove in my behavior, and my body and mind initially didn’t WANT to snack or watch shows on Sundays, when the time came around. This was invigorating for me!

(But I mean, I still had ice cream.)

I’m still working on that intentionally seeking God bit. But the beauty of it is, I still have 17 days to figure it out.

Through discipline, and learning to say no, I, for one, am feeling my heart and mind slowly thaw from its winter slush, and I feel a small green shoot pushing through the thick, dark mud of mindless yes.

 

What Makes Bad Men Good? A Tour of Eastern State Penitentiary

When my students voted to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary as the historic part of their tour of Philadelphia (for their week-long Urban Explorations class), I wasn’t expecting the tour to be that significant to me.

I was wrong.

The Eastern State Penitentiary is America’s most historic prison. The architectural wonder is known as the world’s first true “penitentiary,” that is, the building was designed to inspire penitence—or true regret—in the hearts of prisoners.

The massive stone structure is surrounded by a thirty foot stone walls, complete with neo-Gothic battlements, to impose fear in prisoners.

The novelty of Eastern State’s construction at the time was that the architecture represented a new philosophy. Instead of punishment, the designers of the prison sought reform. In Europe at the time (late 1700s), most prisons were simply holding pens for criminals. No attempt was made at reforming a man’s character. Prominent Philadelphians (including Benjamin Franklin other Enlightenment thinkers), however, sought reform, for the lack of reform!

It caused them to ask an age-old question: what makes bad men good?

Their answer was three-fold: (1) silence and meditation (isolation), (2) the word of God (the Bible), and (3) work (shoemaking, weaving, etc).

The website for the Eastern State Penitentiary gives this history: “Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

 

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Eastern’s seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations included each prisoner having his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence. In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, that ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls.

We booked our tour only a day in advance, which meant we got the audio tour version, and this slow amble allowed us to connect the narrator’s words with the stone walkways.

In a stern, solid hallway, next to rows of two-foot doors, I asked my students if they agree that silence and isolation would make someone sorry and bring personal reform. (I got mixed reviews.) Which means that it is a very good question to ask—what makes bad men good? (And how do you answer this question at a state level?)

My students were not the only ones with mixed reviews of isolationism. Charles Dickens spoke out about the penitentiary; in fact, on his tour to the United States, he cited only two things he wanted to see—Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He wrote: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Besides the fascinating history of the historic prison, the prison itself is well-presented as a museum (a bit cold on the last day of winter! But realistic in that sense.) I found myself contemplating issues of humanity, of human character, and of prisons today (the Penitentiary has a striking visual exhibit related to the current American prison crisis, including but not limited to the issues of race).

And then imagine my surprise when I heard soft strains from Cellblock 4, and I ducked around the corner to find the Gettysburg College Choir singing the last lines from Stephan Hatfield’s “Hard Shoulder”:

Have you no coat on a winter’s day
Have you no one to see you through, Lord?
Am I just like you, Lord?
Blessed are they that mourn; they shall be comforted
Blessed are they who mourn…

The director turned around to announce they were performing as a part of their “Peace and Justice” tour, performing pieces relating to social justice. Hatfield’s piece was written to honor street people, and the choir followed up with an ensemble performance of Ysaye M. Barnwell’s “Spiritual,” a very effective piece of performance art sung in the space, hauntingly heard in the former prison.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

In this world of trouble and woe,
a member had better be ready to go.
We look for things to stay the same,
but in the twinkling of an eye, everything can be changed.

The troubles of this world fill our hearts with rage
from Soweto, to Stonewall, Birmingham, and LA
We are searching for hope that lies within ourselves
as we fight against misogyny, race, hatred, and AIDS.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

They ended with Eric Whitacre’s “Hope, Faith, Life, and Love.”

This choral surprise was a personal delight, but I later reflected that I think that the college students probably got the most out of their performance. (There were very few listening in on the concert, only a couple of Eastern State staffers, me, and like 3 other people. Besides, how many tourists are prepared for Whitacre?)

When we return to the question—what makes bad men good?—I think we ought to look further than Barnwell’s “hope that lies within ourselves.” I think of something loftier, and since I’m in a poetic mood, in a poem’s how I’ll answer–I’d choose something like a star.

Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Hi, It’s Nice to Meet You

Hello all! The calendar reading March 14th leaves me scratching my head for two reasons—how has winter steamed by so quickly, and how am I ever going to dig my little VW out of a FOOT of snow?! (Winter storm Stella’s been a doozy!)

Today I want to welcome the newcomers to Shasta’s Fog! A few of you are showing up for the first time, and today I’d like to discuss four types of posts you can expect from Shasta’s Fog in the future. (And for faithful readers, this post is for any of you who haven’t had a chance to read my recently updated About page!)

1. One type of post I usually write is literary in nature. (Last year 50% of my posts were in some way related to literature or poetry!) These posts are normally the brain-child of literature I’m currently teaching (I’m a high school AP lit teacher), books I’m currently reading, poems I’m pondering, or poems I’m writing.

My most recent literary post included thoughts on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and if I were to write a literary post right now, I might include a poem I wrote sitting in a graveyard by the North Sea in England, after a 5 a.m. jaunt along the cliffs, past the bombed out Whitby Abbey, a strong monument to the history of monastic life, English poetry (Caedmon DID live there after all), and the church of England.

(I found this poem after digging through my 2014 U.K. photos and journals, which I was perusing in order to co-teach a mini-term called “Urban Exploration.” Every winter, my school cancels all classes for 7th-12th grades for one week and hosts a week of Mini-terms, where students can take career-oriented or personal interest classes.)

Whitby

Fair morning whispers to the child of light.
She rises early who farewells the night.
Pink sky, brown rooster—white, the gulls which cry,
salt wind, green cliff, stone monument nearby
wet grass, thick wheat, stone pathway for her feet
small bird, fat slugs, three snails—all these do meet
the sun above the cliffs at Whitby’s shore,
smooth North Sea, tugboats, church bells, gates, and more.
Light’s morning glimmers, puzzling beauty’s flash
amiss—“For safety, stay on this, the path.”

2. The second type of post I write is spiritual in nature, though many of these posts are literary posts in disguise. (For example, I discussed N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe, but it felt more like a personal spiritual credo than anything else.)

If I were to write a post relating to spirituality today, I would write about my foray into observing Lent, how I’m observing the Episcopalian kind this year (mainly because they get to cheat on Sundays), how I eagerly champion the virtues of Lenten fasts in all my literature classes, and how that basically flows from two agendas: (1) It is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today, and (2) I basically just don’t want to be the only one walking around admitting that I actually am addicted to Netflix, Youtube, and snacking. You have vices too.

3. The third type of post I write is travel posts. I recently traveled to Central America and posted some photos and poetry related to Nicaragua.

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Upcoming travel posts will be in honor of my personal conviction to properly celebrate the Easter holy day, as I will be celebrating in community by traveling with friends to a new city—Québec City! Let the party begin! (Not that breaking my fast there will necessarily include Netflix or Youtube, but it may include some exquisitely divine food (poutine and macaroons!), architectural wonders, crisp river walks, and a cathedral Easter service.

4. Last but not least, I also write about cultural issues, including but not limited to:

(1) those issues relating to geography (Pennsylvania: a place to where all women wear maroon, guys still wear deck shoes even though everyone else stopped wearing Sperry’s in 2012, and where chip aisles do not exist and only pretzels are munched!)

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(2) issues relating to Anabaptism (including snarky posts about Mennonite culture), and

(3) those issues relating to singleness and marriage (you all seemed to really like [and really hate] this post).

If I were to write a cultural post today, I would write about some thoughts I’ve been thinking relating to single women in the church and this idea that all women ought to submit to all men in general, whether on a committee, whether at a job, whether at a hardware store, or on a co-ed soccer team. (Here it goes. Friends and family: keep your fire extinguishers nearby.)

Deep breath.

The cultural milieu in which I find myself has this unstated (and sometimes stated) belief that all women must submit to all men. Were I to write a post about this cultural topic, I would (1) take a close look at the Scriptures from which this application is normally derived, (2) I would note when those Scriptures are speaking to women in marriage relationships and when they are not, and then ask if there are any “submitting” passages left over, (3) and then I would ask my favorite current question: “Why are some people so intent on making sure that all women (single or married) know their place as “submitters” when, in my experience, single women in the church do not practically live under any especial authority that differs from that of married men in the church?” Because that would be a fun conversation (though one probably best had in person).

So there you have it, new readers! Feel free to use my blog’s category guide as well to find content most suited to you: Teach (education topics), Read (books and literary posts), and Travel (cultural posts).

I look forward to reading your feedback, and I welcome suggestions for new posts in the comments!