Magic words

April 27, 2011

Magic realism has been one of my favorite genres for years. I’m not sure what initially turned me on to it, but stories like Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling” have fueled my enthusiasm.

Scholar Scott Simkins describes magic realism as a genre that creates a reality “in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.” Yah, he does a better job than I could. Basically, I love magic realism because it dares to express realities deeper than those we see in the material world. It makes the intangible tangible without losing the wonder and mystery of the universe and human experience.

Lately I have been reading Jorge Luis Borges’ collection of short stories, Labyrinths, for one of my classes. Initially, I loved the stories. They challenged me and made me want to explore Borges’ created worlds and learn something from them. But after reading several more of his stories, I started to catch on to a pattern. Every story, while beautifully written, ends with the same sort of mind-flipping trick (it was all a dream, the narrator isn’t who he thinks he is, etc.). I came to expect these Inception-like plot twists, and they began to frustrate me. I found myself wondering if Borges was trying to show me a truer truth by deconstructing my view of reality, or if he was just trying to entertain me by formulaically plugging in surprise endings to his stories.

Entertainment is good, but only in the moment. When I read People magazine, I am happy to have something pass the time, but that’s all it does. Since it doesn’t carry over into the way I live my life, I think it’s probably a waste of time (though I’m definitely not saying I never indulge).

I wasn’t until a class discussion that I realized I’m not giving Borges nearly enough credit if I think his stories are only meant to entertain. It took a few people to comment on how they didn’t really connect with Borges’ stories for me to realize how much I did connect with them. Despite not really understanding the big picture of any of his pieces, it is the magic of Borges’ sentences—the passing descriptions or the momentary reflections of a character—that convince me there is much more to his writing than I realize. Though the “connection” to the work I feel is vague and difficult to verbalize, I know Borges has taught me something.

And reading probably the most famous work of magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is helping me learn how to decipher the magic (or perhaps embrace the undecipherable). I tried to read Marquez’s masterpiece years ago but quit somewhere along the way because I kept confusing characters (this time, I keep a handy-dandy list as a bookmark so I can actually follow what is going on). Like with Borges, I am finding Marquez’s sentences more meaningful than the narrative itself, but I’m almost positive that’s because I don’t understand the big picture yet (I’m only about one fifth of the way through). Still, I have loved reading the book so far, and I am determined to stick with it this time.

p.s. Two beautiful sentences.

Borges on surprises:

“Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.” (The Waiting)

Marquez on eating dirt:

“The handfuls of earth made the only man who deserved that show of degradation less remote and more certain, as if the ground he walked on with his fine patent leather boots in another part of the world were transmitting to her the weight and the temperature of his blood in a mineral savor that left a harsh aftertaste in her mouth and a sediment of peace in her heart.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

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So much noise

April 19, 2011

“And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise.”    Ezra 3:11-13

We spent a good part of our Torrey session last week discussing the implications of this small paragraph in the book of Ezra. It’s such an uncomfortable image, but one true to experience. The Israelites were shouting for joy because they had finally been given the resources to build a temple…after years of exile in Babylon, God was beginning to restore them. But the older priests wept. They remembered the temple in the days of Solomon—lined with pure gold and precious stones, with cherubim engraved along the walls—and were hit with the truth that it temple was lost forever.

Was their weeping ungrateful? Was it an ungodly response to God’s gift of a new temple, evidence that they were bitter towards God? I don’t think so. I do not think sadness necessitates ungratefulness, and I do not think it always involves blame. But I was genuinely surprised to find that not everyone in class agreed with those statements.

Last semester, Greg Wolfe, the founder and editor of Image, gave a lecture at Biola entitled “The Christian Tragedy.” It was one of my favorite chapels of the semester (and by “of the semester,” I mean “of the required 15 I had to make-up online in the last week of school”…), and I find myself thinking about it often. Wolfe spoke about tragedy as a topic largely absent from our pews, our bookstores, and our art. He says:

“To have a tragic sense of life is to be aware that not every bad thing that happens in the world is someone’s fault.”

Sometimes blame or anger accompanies sadness, and sometimes it doesn’t. The old priests of Israel were right to mourn the loss of the former temple: it was a tragic loss. Jesus was right to mourn the death of his friend Lazarus for the same reason.

I wonder why sometimes Christians confuse sadness with ungratefulness or blame. Is it because we believe the good news of the gospel negates all pain?

As Easter weekend approaches, I am reminded by Wolfe that even within the good news there is a time to mourn, to remember the tragedy of Good Friday:

“The notion that Christianity is simply comic because the resurrection makes for a happy ending could not be more wrong…Christ fulfills this contradiction of existence, not by dissolving it but by bearing the affirmation of the human situation as it is through still deeper darkness: ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ [‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’]”

LA Public Library, photo courtesy of Christian Koons's phone

This past weekend I went to the LA Public Library for the first time. The few times I have walked past it before (wide-eyed and drooling), it has been closed. But just the building itself is amazing: it has stone busts of the great writers on each side, a mosaic dome, and the famous “torch of knowledge” at the very top. And the inside was not disappointing. In fact, it is way bigger on the inside than it looks. I didn’t explore much on Saturday, but the library did provide an excellent location for reviewing submissions to Biola’s literary magazine (we just finished selecting what goes in to this spring’s issue… exciting!). I hope to go back and explore one day soon, because libraries are probably my favorite indoor spaces in the world.

I feel incredibly lucky that, with the rise of the library, my love affair (with books…and the occasional librarian) is one of the most inexpensive and accessible ones you can have. It’s not like shoe-lovers can just go choose from thousands of shoes and freely borrow any pair. Or since that example is gross, it’s not like food lovers can just walk into a building and try any food they like without paying. LIBRARIES ARE INCREDIBLE! (I know, I know, logically speaking, neither of my examples really make sense, but libraries just feel too good to be true). Walking into a library reminds me of the feeling I get when I’m registering for classes…TOO.MANY.GOOD.CHOICES. Except then I remember that my education is costing thousands of dollars, and libraries are free! Plus, libraries don’t kick you out after 4 years! (Yes, I am one of those dorks who wants to go to grad school for the rest of her life.)

Though I have not yet gotten the privilege to work in a library, it is not for lack of effort. Granted, I have only really applied to work at two, but still. I’ve even been so desperate as to “borrow” a friend’s employee identification badge and shelve books for a half hour…it was just as great as I imagined.

When I was hired by Barnes & Noble the summer after I graduated high school, I thought I had finally gotten my big book-shelving break, but no. I worked at the café. Though that wasn’t the worst job in the world (I got all the whipped cream I could eat), I never did reach the promised land: the book side. And to rub salt in the wound, literally two weeks before I was set to leave for my 6-month trip to England, my manager asked if I wanted to be trained for the book side. For a second, I actually thought about not getting on my flight to England.

(But really, I probably had overly romantic views of what shelving books at Barnes & Noble would be like…I’m pretty sure our Twilight kiosk was the only area that needed constant re-stocking. [This was right at the height of the Twilight craze. And don’t think I escaped it working in the café…my hands were dyed red from strawberry-flavored vampire blood for weeks after our New Moon release party.])

But going to England proved to be worth it, because that was where I came across this little (HA) place in Oxford:

The Bodleian Library. What can I say, it was like a dream. (Sorry for the poor quality photo…I was too star-struck to care about composition). The Bodleian is Oxford University’s main research library, and my favorite library in the world. One of the coolest parts of my visit was seeing the “Lamson tube system” in action…our tour guide requested a book from the New Bodleian building across the street, and it was sent within minutes via an underground tube system! I just now looked it up because I had forgotten the name, and Wikipedia (quality research, I know) informed me that the tube system, which had been around since the 1940s, was turned off just two months after I visited, and then shut down permanently in August 2010. I blame the Kindle.

In yonder nether world

April 10, 2011

This past week in Torrey we have been discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost…we spend 9 hours on this one—more than any other book this semester. Since I read most of the book in one long sitting, I was able to enter into the story a lot more than I expected. But geez louise! The fall of man is a complex and confusing story. I think it always has been…last semester we must have read a dozen different theological takes on what the first sin really was, and I’ve also read more than a few skeptics mocking the story of the “magic apple.”

I am beginning to understand both of those responses. Sometimes I want desperately to explain the fall, to fit it into a nice formulaic equation, and sometimes I want to write it off as a fairy tale (although I’m not sure even fairy tales are safe to write off). While reading Milton, I simply tried to enter into the fall—and that’s what made my reading experience so rich.

I was especially struck by the empathy I felt for Adam and Eve. They have always been such archetypal characters in my mind, and Milton really emphasized their humanity. When an angel called Raphael comes to escort them out of Eden forever, Adam asks the angel a simple question: “In yonder nether world where shall I seek His bright appearances, or footstep trace?”(11:328-329) He doesn’t ask why he and Eve must leave, but how they are to find God outside of Eden. Raphael replies,

“… Surmise not then

His presence to these narrow bounds confined

Of Paradise or Eden…

Doubt not but in valley and in plane,

God is as here, and will be found alike

Present.”(11:40-42,49-51)

Paradise Lost reminds me that Earth is not Eden, and that God can be found in unexpected places. It is easy for me to confuse the presence of God with the feeling of security or comfort, but this is wrong. God is not confined to the secure and comfortable places.

And as German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, God is not confined to human weakness either:

“Religious people speak of God … either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.”

(P.S. This is from a collection of Bonhoeffer’s letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his blatant opposition to Nazism, and was executed just weeks before the Nazi’s were defeated. We read a few of his letters in Vision, Voice & Practice this week, and though they were never edited or written for any audience other than his friend, they were beautiful.)

Dumplings and chicken

April 5, 2011

Last week in my Vision, Voice & Practice class, one of my professors shared a simple piece of advice that he learned years ago from his fellow painter/full-time-professor friend: adjust your work to fit the time you can work on it. In other words, instead of setting out to do a 10X20 ft. painting the first week of classes, this paint-essor (HA) chose to create many smaller, simpler pieces in the 30 minute slots of time he had. Basic, I know… but it wasn’t until just now as I was lying in bed reading Paradise Lost that it hit me: that very same principle can apply to my writing! It hit me while I was reading Paradise Lost because it is starting to really stress me out how many great books I am reading and not writing about. Even though I love doing classwork, I can’t help but regret not making the time to process each book, or even a few paragraphs in each book, more than I am. It’s like when you’re at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and, looking at all the different types of dumplings, you feel the ache of what could have been if only you hadn’t filled up on orange chicken. (Just to clarify, the dumplings are all the writing I could be doing about the great books I’m reading, and the orange chicken is my homework. Today in our Torrey session we spent an hour arguing over what makes a bad metaphor … I’m pretty sure that one fits the agreed-upon criteria perfectly. I thought of another one about keeping up with an assembly line that I maybe should have gone with.)

We just finished a book by Tsitsi Dangarembga called Nervous Conditions in my World Lit class, and one line from the book has been stuck in my head the past few days:

“At Babumakuru’s I would have the leisure, be encouraged to consider questions that had to do with survival of the spirit, the creation of consciousness, rather than mere sustenance of the body.”              –Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga

The protagonist, Tambu, is a Zimbabwean girl looking forward to going to school for the first time. And, unlike everyone else in her family, she finds value in learning itself, not merely viewing school as a means to an end. Though I expected to have a hard time identifying with a character in such a different cultural setting, Tambu is a fellow dork and the book was excellent (and the first novel published by a Zimbabwean woman!). And though most of the time I am reading such mind-blowingly brilliant stuff that I couldn’t not grow even if I tried, Tambu has been reminding me that my education is designed for the survival of my spirit.

SO… my “duh” moment tonight went like this: “DUH. Stop waiting for 4-hour intervals to write and learn and grow.” And though I know I will lose something in choosing to write in smaller intervals of time (sometimes I don’t actually figure out what I am writing about until an hour in), something is better than nothing.

Also, I am beginning to wonder how many areas of my life this principle of “matching the task to the time you have” might apply. For example, is it the most unthinkable thing in the world to tidy up my desk in my 15-minute slots of nothingness, as opposed to waiting for a dull Saturday when I can empty everything out? (I’m pretty sure this is something they teach you in Freshman Orientation, but I spent that whole week camped out in my room.)

Panic

April 2, 2011

The cover

"See Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane have a choking feeling."

"Oh no. No, no, no. Dick and Jane have nausea."

Just wanted to share the book Amber and I made for our Vision, Voice & Practice class. We picked up a pamphlet from Biola’s health center on Panic Attacks, and it didn’t take long to decide what we were going to do with it…it just begged to be made into a children’s book. Of course, we weren’t trying to make panic attacks funny, but rather comment on the nature of this particular (and probably most) “helpful” pamphlet(s). Despite its best intentions, the pamphlet was pretty painfully simplistic and borderline condescending…so when Amber and I started re-reading some old Dick and Jane books, we knew we had struck gold. Since the Dick and Jane books were designed to teach kids to read, they are super repetitive and just a little bit awkward.

So, I re-wrote some of the bullet points directly from the Panic Attack pamphlet “Dick and Jane” style (although I didn’t change any of the pamphlet’s wording or the order of the points), and Amber drew some “Dick and Jane” style illustrations (aren’t they great? she actually copied some of the orignal pages without changing anything, and in others she moved an arm or omitted and object), and viola. Also, Amber works in the Biola library, so we are contemplating giving our book a PIN number and everything and just leaving it on a shelf in the children’s section. We shall see.

P.S. Also, here is our inspiration, that cute little pamphlet from the Biola Health Center: