This morning I resolved to ride my bike- just in the neighborhood, to check its alignment before I frighten drivers on busier streets. But now rain streaks my windows and drools out of the gutters, so I sit squinting at IRS forms and thinking of poetry.
You asked why I don’t write more poems.
Quite actually, you didn’t, but there I’ve beaten you to it,
and in bending the truth thus, accomplished that subtle
weave of fact and feeling that I associate with poetry.
But I undid the threads. The truth is, I have internalized Rilke
when he said that perhaps we are here simply to make lists:
House. Bridge. Fountain. Gate. Pitcher. Apple tree. Window.
To say things as they are in their integrity, without embellishment.
So every night at 9:50 I add to a list: Train going by in the dark.
Small singers’ hugs. Kitchen table. Two hawks. Dent in my car.
One huge arched cloud trail. Skeletal trees.
I notice the way the rain envelopes and becomes the sky, content to sink through the earth and change its form, abandoning flight and keeping me indoors, where I sit like a reservoir of simple things, making my lists when I ought to be doing my taxes. Rilke says we ought to speak the lists aloud, or write them, as the most fitting beginner’s form of poetry. “There are the hurts,” he writes. “And, always, the hardships. And there’s the long knowing of love – all of it unsayable. Later, amidst the stars, we will see: these are better unsaid.” So I write: the soft way light reaches through the window to rest in stripes on a girl’s brown hair during church. A friend talking about Paris. Unexpected meetings and free food and my hand out the window to feel the warming air and, of all things, Call Me Maybe on 95.5.
These are no more than fragments that I, in listing them, weave into a body. Rilke, again: “And the things which, even as they live, pass on – understand that we praise them. Transient, they are trusting us to preserve them – us, the most transient of all. As if they wanted our hearts to transform them into – o endlessly – into us. Whatever we are.”
I cannot yet call that transformation Poetry. I slowly fulfill my human duty to name things, but it is ironic that I have no name for the Opus that results. There is great and solemn joy in the mystery. To all the spoken and word-upheld world, I say: be.
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This week I sit curled up next to family, watching small siblings opening gifts. I lie on carpet squinting at economics and algebra textbooks, and watch the pilot episodes of a couple of shows people have instructed me to see, weighing whether I can sustain the commitment to finish their stories. I wake up late. I run. I sit cross-legged on my bed in the temperate glow of my single strand of Christmas lights and ponder things. What am I looking for? What do I need to manufacture for myself vs. find outside of me? What duties/joys am I shirking and why? Where am I needed? I read T.S. Eliot:
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
There are things you lose when you pursue a career: Worship as an obvious chief vocation. Time to be still. Motivations unaffected by the hope of rising higher.
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
I have lost the easy stride of a worshiper. I am like my brother who, untrained at piano, can play hymns in full harmony by ear– but when I straighten his bench and sit down to teach him note names and fingerings, inspiration is forgotten and he languishes in a tangle of thumbs and accidentals.
I am that child. Learning technique. Questioning my choice of direction and reminding myself what I leave behind. And still, still drawn to my work. But the work and the life get confused often because I think about density and walkability and sustainability and ecology and community and bake myself into a buzzword pie but forget to till my own land and speak to my own neighbors.
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.
And the wind shall say:
“Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
I fight suburban sprawl and automobile-oriented environments. But imagine I win; who am I then? A decent godless person: her only monument the pedestrian-oriented streetscape and a thousand lost souls?
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
So I hear the questions and I am afraid because it turns out I am not good at walking this path, but I refuse to turn back. Like a fool, I wander forward into the unknown because I just want to HELP, but I don’t know if I will. I want to be important, but I’m afraid it would destroy me. I want to be independent but I don’t want to be alone. I want to worship AND be accepted in a secularized city. So it’s a mess. But I believe I’m meant to wade through it.
In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.
I believe Jesus will be faithful to complete a good work in and through me. Halfway in and halfway out of the dark, I will keep Christmas.
The work of creation is never without travail;
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order.
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.
(Poetry taken from Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”; I recommend the entire poem.)
Every Monday night, I take a detour on my way home and drive through the heart of downtown Austin. It lures me like I imagine an anglerfish entices prey in the deep sea depths; a sinister analogy, but oddly applicable to how I feel when I’m drawn to those bright streets. I vary my route each week, watching business-suited pedestrians and party-goers share the night with cars and motorcycles and glittering buildings. It’s a vibrant nightlife that, come morning, will transform into a vibrant workday. It’s the sort of place you want to drive through slowly (or ideally walk)– becoming a participant.
This diverse and energetic city atmosphere is enthusiastically supported by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication in 1961, it’s become a classic in urban planning and has exhibited impressive influence up to the present day; influencing city planners across the country and such movements as The New Urbanism. I read most of Jacobs’ book on vacation at the Frio River– about as far from city life as you can get, but even there I was struck by its pertinence. Not only is it searingly applicable to our problems as an increasingly urban nation, but Jacobs has masterfully woven personal experience, opinions and second-hand anecdotes together with hard statistics and history in a way that kept me turning pages and underlining passages even in sections dealing with amortization periods of mortgages, which is normally hard to do.
Jane Jacobs loved cities. She loved cities because she loved people and was endlessly captivated by the life of individuals, especially the ways those lives could be shaped and changed by the lives of other individuals or the places that framed them. I’ve thought a lot about the influence of Place recently, especially since traveling to England last year. What makes a place conducive to human flourishing? That question is a bigger one than Jacobs asks in Cities, since she deals primarily with urban centers rather than suburban or rural life. But in those urban centers, she calls first and foremost for diversity. “Without a strong and inclusive central heart,” she writes, “a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally, and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Because people are always changing- whether by aging or because of fluctuations of income or interest, monotonous areas become permanent way stations. People want to live in places that reflect their own lives, so what multifaceted person would choose to spend his life in a one-dimensional neighborhood?
Diversity is key to lively cities, but cities do not automatically generate diversity. It forms because of various economic pools of use, which draw different sorts of people, who create smaller elements of diversity in an increasing cycle. That cycle of flourishing is a lofty and complex goal, but Jacobs proposes four necessary conditions for diversity that help break the issue into smaller, more attainable parts. (I highly support reading the book since this brief overview is really inadequate.)
First, districts must serve more than one primary function, to draw people into the area at different times of day. Primary uses are ordinarily places of work or residence, or anything that draws people for its own sake, such as a successful theatre.
Second, most blocks must be short to encourage commerce and “intricate pools of cross-use.” Long streets cut people off from other areas. If a city were a quilt, short streets would be like stitching instead of basting in the fabric of diversity.
Third, buildings must vary in age in order to accommodate businesses of varied means. Aesthetically, a street that mingles old and new buildings looks more diverse, and can attract real diversity by offering accommodation to established businesses and small start-ups simultaneously.
Fourth, the population must be sufficiently dense (density is determined by dwellings per acre, not to be confused with overcrowding which is determined by people per dwelling). In areas where people are spread thin, only businesses supported by the majority can turn a sustainable profit. Only dense areas can meet the demands of the minority. At a lecture on urban design last week, I met a developer who chose the following quote from Jane Jacobs as a motto for his real estate consultant firm: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Further in her book, Jacobs delves deep into the nature of cities and issues such as the self-destruction of diversity, border vacuums, the role of automobiles, and various tactics to improve the functioning of everything from subsidized housing to city government. Particularly because I’ve experienced European cities and older American ones that were built around the pedestrian or horse and carriage rather than the car, I was fascinated by Jacobs’ diagnosis and prescribed cures for the (in my opinion) inferior urban planning movements after World War II. The sentiment is shared by the authors of Suburban Nation, another book on urban planning I finished recently, as evidenced by the choice of quote here:
Since Jacobs published it in 1961, the logic and sentiments behind her work have taken root in many city development departments and produced improvements that I hope would encourage her today. They certainly encourage me. But there’s still a long way to go. When I drive through downtown Austin, I’m thrilled by all the diversity I see in action. But a few miles out, the suburban neighborhoods are populated with bleak business parks and wide highways that speak of an environment built for machines instead of bodies. As ever more Americans (especially millennials) flock to urban centers, it is ever more important that we build them well. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s a note about illustrations that has stuck with me: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”
8/30/14 – 1:49pm Greenwich Mean Time
We took off about half an hour ago. Goodbye, Britain. It’s been historic. I have new favourite places all over the country. When we first got to London, I didn’t really like it. But I think it was mainly the culture shock and fatigue. Even though we speak the same language, there are innumerable small differences between America and Britain that take adjusting to. It smells different, for one thing! The cities smell kind of like coffee and smoke and something else I can’t describe. The rural areas don’t have the same smell, though- I guess the wind that blows through the world kind of universalises the smell of the outdoors. They do have lots of flower smells of which we Texans are regrettably deprived. Sometimes I would just be walking along a street and smell lilies. Once I smelled honey comb waffle cereal and I am still baffled by that! Anyway, London was just so big, crowded, and different. But when the culture shock wore off, I enjoyed the city quite a lot. It’s so diverse- it should be nicknamed ‘the city of endless discovery’, because every corner you turn, there’s another ancient church sandwiched between two modern buildings, or a lady playing classical violin in a square, or a little independent shop that sells paints, or yet another antiquarian bookstore. I like best to stroll along the Thames, seeing two vast swaths of city and a swirling crowd of humanity divided by the river that creates enough space for reflection. When I come back to England (and I do hope to!) I think I would do London in the middle of the trip though, not the start and finish. I might start in Oxford! Oxford was definitely one of the best places we visited. It’s impossible to pick a favourite, though! Canterbury, Dover, Salisbury, Oxford, the Letcombes, Wantage, York, Alnmouth, Alnwick, Edinburgh, Inverness, Glencoe, Keswick… out of all the towns we spent much time in, it would probably be a contest between Oxford, Dover, Salisbury, and Keswick. But the most jaw-dropping scenery was in Scotland for sure. I totally fell for that country. We’re up above the Atlantic, and the cloud-trails of other planes stream like kite tails beside us. It is something to be PART of the sky I always crane my neck to see. And it was SOMETHING to be part of the country I have always dreamed of visiting.
I’m always the one who puts the lights on the tree. The task used to fall to my mom, but once I got old enough to have an eye for that sort of thing, I took over. I wanted it to be me hanging the light.
I play Christmas music and I start with garden shears. Giving myself a hand cramp, I squeeze the shears and bite off the branches that are going limp or yellow. Then I sit back on my heels and size up the crowded mess of fir, deciding where to make holes.
Needles fall thick. Sections of the trunk appear. It seems wrong to trim perfectly good branches but the tree is so stuffed with green that there’s no room for light. I can’t hang the lights until there’s enough emptiness for them to fill.
The tree looks hurt when I finish. The holes I’ve made stare at me accusingly. I start unwinding the strand of yellow lights and twisting them around branches. I cluster light in the holes I made, all the way up the tree. My hands get splotchy with sap. When I’m finished, I step back.
The once-bare places shine.
“and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?” -Herman Melville
Light cannot enter us until there’s enough emptiness for it to fill; until we are scraped empty and trimmed bare.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9
Walking through the fields under a bleeding sunset, I forget to hold my peace. Frankly, when there is extraordinary beauty flooding the top half of the world, I have to exclaim over it. I feel like that’s who I’m meant to be: a curator of the universe’s artifacts and a proclaimer of ordinary astonishments. And the sky was pink tonight. Oh, you saw it. It was out there for you. But I guess it was inside me because I spilled words and then I had to clean them up.
“It looks like horses ran through pink whipped cream.”
And you asked what I’d been reading, drinking, and smoking. Heh. I should learn to keep my mouth shut because everyone sees the sky their own way, I guess. I said I liked to give ordinary things unusual analogies, because it might make somebody look at the mundane again and see it with fresh eyes. “And you sound like a four-year-old,” you replied.
I don’t know how to be who I am around you- around any of you. I don’t fit in your world. I have been silent beneath the stars and said little in the rain. I’ve shut up about stories and I have tried to keep quiet under sunsets, but once the sun fades, the sky will never, ever look the same again. You get it once. That’s why I write, you know. Because clouds rain away and trees fall and buildings crumble and people die, but words stay alive. I write to save the sunsets and make people look twice. But you said the aim of poetry is to draw attention to the writer.
I always thought it made sense, poetry. Not the poetry itself (that can be complex), but the object of it. To shine beauty around the edges of ugly things and to give more facets to the beautiful, like cutting a rough gemstone. To grab people by the back of the head and shove them into new light saying, “Look at the world! Look at it!” But I guess it’s just some people who view art that way. Human creation ought to draw attention to an artist, yeah. But not a human one. Can I make you believe I write for the love of words and the God-written world?
The sun was fading away as we argued; above our heads cloud-scales lost their sheen like a great fish dying. Near the horizon, the sky glowed gold. And nobody was looking.
it’s hard to know exactly what you’re made of
but I am somehow connected to frost on the mailbox
and dozens of library receipts
airplane turbulence and philosophy lectures
the jump to the heart when a deer blows in the woods
and christmas lights
twenty-one years and still I am barely acquainted with wisdom
but the key (one key) is this:
the key is to stalk the planet like it’s a celebrity and you’re the paparazzi.
the key is to live as though you are begging the universe for an autograph.
and in the indian drum thunder or the blue cedar berries dripping dew
the question of a God-breathed child and the gravity that brings you back around
the universe takes up the pen
To my adopted extended family,
It’s funny, because you’re sort of my real extended family because Michael married Emily. So since he’s my brother-in-law and you’re his family, it’s like we’re family-tied. I have the hardest time trying to explain that to people. But my heart really gets it.
I guess it’s kind of weird that I’m almost 21 and yet today I was playing leapfrog with you. It’s a weird I can live with, though. Because you are some of the best things in my life. And when I say “my life” I don’t mean right now. I mean ever. Always. You are the best. I never could have imagined our current situation- you and me and Michael and Emily all living on the same property, two minutes’ drive or 6 minutes’ walk away. It’s just one example of how God takes things that scare me (moving to the country) and turns them into things I adore.
I’m so sore right now. When someone suggested we play football on our knees, I had this thought that I probably shouldn’t ruin my jeans. But I played anyway. Because I can buy new jeans and my sore knees will be back to normal tomorrow. But this? This absurd experience of scooting across a sandy field on our knees and looking laughably stunted as we tackle each other is going down in the venerated book of Good Times.
When we played Red Rover (my first time since age 8ish), I squeezed your hands tight- partially to keep our chain together, and partially because you are my favourite kids and I love feeling like your sister.
When we made hot chocolate from scratch, I sang Pompeii with you and was glad of the cold weather and warm friendship.
I’m just so thankful for you. My family and your family and the joining of us through Michael and Emily. Thanksgiving isn’t for few weeks yet, but I find myself feeling this way all the time. When you hold my sister close, Michael. When you show me how itunes works, Josh. When you break the line of scrimmage to run and keep Caleb from shutting his fingers in the car door, Andrew. When you half-hug me whenever we pass, Sam. When you quote the same phrase 3 times in a row, Noah. When you show me sandcastles, Abby. When you say “Grace! You’re home!” when I get to your house, Caleb.
I love you. I don’t always tell you stuff like this because I guess I’m afraid you’ll think I’m sentimental. And I am. But I don’t care. I look at your dirty faces and I see your patchwork hearts and I love you with everything God has made me and all the ample love with which he has deluged my soul. I don’t know what time will do to us, but I hope to keep you close. You are my family now. You and your parents and the new baby who has yet to make an appearance. The Lord has done great things for us and I hope you notice even the tiny ones- the brightness of the day-moon in the afternoon sky and the sprinkling of leftover cocoa powder on the counter and the way people laugh when they feel secure. I notice them and I remember them and I keep them locked up inside me so that whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we become, I will always have a piece of you with me.
Good times indeed.
there I was lying on the carpet,
raised on my elbows, making bookmarks
precision knife poised like a tiny javelin
red squeeze marks on my knuckles
the promise to come downstairs electrified solitude
and as my bedroom reverberated with strains of his symphony
Tchaikovsky cradled loneliness with reverence
there were the Proms in their last week
and I leaving for a two-week vacation,
voices and orchestras made me fade
blowing wide their memory
the anticipation of leaving intensified festivity
and as the walls reverberated with strains of applause
Petroc Trelawney described the Albert Hall with reverence
there you went leaping over garden rows
spiking the volleyball, sipping your milkshakes
fresh haircuts, tan and taut legs
stretching my heart
and the thought of me ever going from you- or you from me- energised camaraderie
and as the Honda reverberated with strains of your mirth
no one listened to your laughing with as much reverence
I just have something to say to myself real fast.
When you feel like a failure because you’re not good at cards or parkour or video games or comebacks, stop. Dunk your head in water or something and wake up and remember:
“Our greatest fear should be not of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” -Francis Chan
And I have something to say to you now. You fail at stuff sometimes. Forget it. Move on. Sometimes it’s more dangerous to succeed. Guess who Jesus said will inherit the earth? The skilled? The talented? The popular?
The meek. The meek shall inherit the earth.
And in 1 Corinthians 13, is love described as clever? important? game-winning? Nope.
Love is kind. Love does not envy or boast. Love is not arrogant or rude. When you lose, you don’t have much of a chance to become arrogant. Oh, but when you win, you do. So which is worse: losing or arrogance?
God seems to have a lot more approval for the former.
Note to self:
if you stand, take heed lest you fall.
if you win, shut up.
if you lose, laugh.
let another man praise you and not your own lips.
if you succeed, give thanks.
if you fail, give thanks.
give a lot of thanks.