Easter in the Fall

A few weeks ago I followed my dad out into my mom’s garden when he went to pick the remaining vegetables. Most of the plants were dark and bent and dead. The okra was half the height it had been, and the beans’ home-built trellis was tilting with mad exhaustion. The tomato vines curled blackly around their stakes and a few last over-ripe tomatoes, glowing orange-red, hung almost oozing off of them. Ever since then I have wanted to write this entry.

The changing of seasons always puts me in an Easter mood.  Each time the earth shifts humors in its cycle of yearly sinking down into somber sleep and rising up again, new and singing, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ line: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This is both one of my God’s favorite party tricks and the grandest foundation of his character: he continually brings life out of death. Brown leaves rot and carpet the earth, so that fresh green life will leap out, nourished by death in its last decay. The withered hand is stretched out, whole again. Four-days-entombed Lazarus comes forth, trailing his grave clothes behind him.

And so for me, it is Easter weekend.  It is always Easter weekend. Christ died and rose to life, and so, in miniature, must we, along with the rest of his creation.  I am not saying something new. I’m saying something very old. Not only do we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we, with Christ, are baptized into death (Romans 6). But then, on the other side, (hear this,) then we come up out of those strange pathways and that dreadful river and look down to find our feet new-shod with the gospel of peace, fit to face the day.

The old self must crumble and rot, so that the new self can rise and grow. Death is the only way through to life.

Eventually, when we rise up out of death, clinging to our Savior’s hand, we will turn and see that the old dark valley and those rushing waters are gone and dissolved for good and all: that Donne spoke true and death has died. Our feet will no longer be new-shod, but new feet entire, whole and well, fit to face eternity.

Lord Bless Saturday

I have had a lot of thoughts in my head this week. My little mind has been overwhelmed with details and ideas and nineteen credits and conflicting plans. Last night I got the chance to talk to several dear friends from home. I told one of them that even though the weekend was here, I couldn’t seem to figure out how to rest: whether to be with people to escape from my own harried thoughts or to sit by myself and wait out the storm in my head.

I’m still not sure. Right now I’m emotionally undone: there are too many people and things to care about. I so much want to love it all well, and I feel like I’m doing only a passable job. But lists are easy and soothing, and so, in inexact order, here is my advice for myself this weekend:

1. No Quad business until Tuesday night when it’s time for coding. None.

2. Do not offer to cook for anyone until Thursday at the earliest. You already have too many leftovers.

3. Ask for help when you need it.

4. Fold your laundry.

5. Remember that you are incapable of irrevocably screwing up your life with one decision about classes.

6. Don’t go anywhere besides church on Sunday.

7. Make it a priority to read well rather than finishing everything.

8. Wear t-shirts that you like.

9. Lock yourself away somewhere with your novel pages. Try to write words that make sentences and when you are too frightened to go on, pray to the One who “shall enlarge your heart.”

10. You are small. Just because everyone else seems to be able to handle it perfectly, doesn’t mean you must. The only thing you must do is ask loud and clear, as John Donne does, for “that grace to begin.” That’s all that’s required. Christ has done the rest.

Favorite Words

For years my favorite word has been quixotic. She’s a marvelous little heiress of a word. She didn’t have to make her own way in the world, work to build her own connotation. She’s named after Cervantes’ legendary windmill slayer, and the Oxford English Dictionary draws connections with the word vagabond. She sounds good too, like mint ice cream, and a loud, old-fashioned oath, and shuffly feet.

My other favorite words are stolen from others. In the play Wit the main character describes the first time she came across the word soporific in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. (All the best words have stories, of course.) The little girl is fascinated to discover that “The bunnies in the picture are sleeping. They’re sleeping like you said, because of sop-or-fic. The illustration bore out the meaning of the word…just as he had explained it. At the time it seemed like magic.” And she moves from there onto John Donne.

There’s also the list from The Cozy Book. “Mumble, Scribble, Sandal, Muzzle, Alabama, Cuspidor and Orphan Annie, Pachysandra, Sarsparilla, Tusk and smug and fog, Galoshes, Ambidextrous, Henrietta, Amble, Dawdle, Wobble, Mosey, Listen, Cousin, (Close to cozy),Superstition, Baked Alaska, Dandelions, Hummingbirds, Busybody, Dillydally, Ali Baba—Cozy words.”

And just now flipping through the OED I found the word shriven. That’s one I haven’t known for long, but I love it. It sounds like it lives at the heart of everything truly good, and it does.

But I’ll tell you a secret. It easy to think of lovable words, but it is far easier to think of unlovable ones. Pull out your psychology textbook or your latest tax return or even your saved texts and you will find them: words which have had their livelihood confiscated. Words which are no longer permitted to mean anything to anybody, to be colored in some brave, bright or bilious way, but only to be a code, destined to be deciphered by the brain and summarily discarded. Most can be resurrected if one is willing to stop and eat them slowly, but some are quite dead and one must replace them with their first cousins. What follows is a post mortem.

UNNECESSARY (un-needful, not full of need, not desirous of action); FULL (abundant, fitting, “…it is fitting and right, its out constant duty at all times and in all places…”); TRANSCRIPT (across the written word, a ship skimming over ink to deliver the message, the meaning, the truth); LIKE (bearing a likeness to, as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, we are to bear likeness to Him); COMMON (as in the Book of Common Prayer, and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, the commonalities which bind us); ORIGINALLY (beginning, birth, that from which we inevitably derive our meaning); DEMONSTRATION (manifest action, letting words live, living oneself); SECURE (do not think of safety, but why you desire safety, of what and for what?) GRADUALLY (gradient, sloping, speeding down a grassy hill not so gradually after all); CONFIRM (with assurance, understanding, a setting of records); PREVIOUS (before, progenitor, parent to the now); COMPLETE (“He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head He gave up His spirit.”)

It is the connotation which makes all the difference, you see. We need denotations to communicate, connotations to do everything else, to express.  A word without connotation has, as yet, no color. It has not lived. Bathroom for example, means simple body functions to most of us, but really it’s the sanctuary of the bathtub, the place of solitude and hour-long wonderings. (I planned this entry in the bath.) Also, my grandparents use the word costly instead of expensive, and I find it vaguely enchanting. What does expensive mean anyway? Out of thoughtfulness? I like taking words apart and putting them back together and seeing how much bigger they become. It’s filling, satisfying, right.

For real, thirst-quenching language here is a sonnet from my favorite word dismantler, stitcher, piler and occasional word-welder, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Changing my Mind

Within the next month I have two term papers due. For Brit Lit, I was going to write about George Herbert for my daddy, because I like him, and for Civilization I was going to write about characterization in the medieval mystery plays. It was all decided, then I put away the ideas and forgot about them. But now warm, compact things have been happening which are forcing me to learn one of those wuthering life lessons college so eagerly shares. I am learning how to change my mind.

It all began several weeks ago when Dr. Brown was teaching the mystery plays. She was talking about the role of guilds in the plays’ production and performance and that was when this sort of hazy glow began. At first, I couldn’t really tell where it was coming from. It certainly wasn’t the powerpoint, and I didn’t think it was Dr. Brown herself. Maybe it was her words. Yes, that was it, they were  shimmering visibly in the blank semi-circle at the front of the room, busily building a medieval village out of their own translucent gold letters. I watched the mussed organization of the little whoville take shape. Clattering bright wagons, laborious heirloom costumes, then the strange timbre of one voice projected loud over a silent, crowded street. “…the piece was then judged by the guild, and if they approved it, he became a master, a member of the guild. Therefore we have master…piece…” And that was when the singing started. I knew exactly where it was coming from this time. A soft, angelic cooing, right from the center of my chest. The village in front of me picked up the pace. The master masons (masters of pieces!) ran round behind their wagon half in and out of costume, clutching treasured bits of script and calling to their overwrought apprentices to “Make haste!” There was a smell in the air as if everything had just been dragged out of the attic, and every villager was taking short, arid breaths, and thinking colorful, interested thoughts. I felt a whelming sense of scarlet and brown belonging. It was magic. I wanted in.

So, I basically had to change that particular thesis. I had already had my original, boring topic approved, but how could I write about characterization, for goodness sakes, when there was a bustling village inside my head? So I came up with a very correct, and secretly exhilarating thesis, spent quite a while emailing back and forth with Dr. Dupree. And…then it was approved. And I rejoiced.

The paper for Dr. Brown is tremendous. It is not long in reality, but it casts a huge shadow. I’m not frightened. I love all papers without exception, but everything about it must be beyond my highest standards, and that includes the topic. As for Herbert, who I had planned to write on, well, he is dear, but there is someone else. He is a comfortable cousin, whose company and wisdom I appreciate,  but John Donne is my lover. If you have ever read any Donne, you will consider that a highly appropriate image. “We can die by it, if not live by love,/And if unfit for tombs and hearse/Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;” I realize he is quite dead, and wrote every poem for a woman other than I, but such separations mean nothing. “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, / No hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.” You laugh, but “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,”  “For love all love of other sight controls,/And makes one little room an everywhere.” Humph. So there. And I haven’t even mentioned “To His Mistress Going To Bed”. In comparison, George Herbert is “Most poor:” and “Most thin.”  “He is a crazy brittle glass,” “A broken altar,” who merely “did sit and eat.” I cannot “love both fair and brown.”

Of course, I am being quite silly, and it has been fun, but be assured, I am really not throwing Herbert out with the bathwater. I promise. It’s just that Donne has found his way into my eternal soul and made himself comfortable there, or at least his words have. “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallowed in a score?/When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more.” I am not a poet, and these are words I could never write, but, at the same time, they seem to have been born of the most secret, quiet part of my being. “Batter my heart, three-personed God…/Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” That is almost worthy of ink and needle and permanence on my skin.

Herbert is home and dinner and small, palmable books. He is “a ragged noise and mirth,” and “a box where sweets compacted lie.” But…I got a ninety-five on the Donne quiz today. He and I are meant to be. The two are brothers, though, in a sense. My two metaphysical darlings…I will write about them both, mayhaps. I do know I have changed my mind, (or rather Donne has, or God,) but I’m not sure what to. We’ll see. Dr. Brown will tell me what’s best. I’m flexible.