Here at my place of employ, the faculty is putting out a daily Advent devotional via email. Today was my assigned day. This is what I wrote:
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Anyone who spends as much time reading literary works from across the centuries as English teachers do will notice, not only the pervasive nature of snake imagery, but also how none of it is crafted to leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sure, there are some individuals out there (including me) who think snakes are cool, but our collective reaction as a species is primal. We don’t like snakes. We bruise their heads, and they bruise our heels.
Reading these verses, I thought especially of a line from Macbeth, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it” (3.2.15). By that point in the play, Macbeth is already King of Scotland, having dispatched the previous King after having him over for supper. However, Macbeth doesn’t feel safe in this ill-gotten kingship, and he gives Lady Macbeth the line about the serpent right after he’s sent a team of hitmen to kill his best friend and that friend’s young son.
In the context of Genesis, I consider all the animal metaphors Shakespeare didn’t use. His Scottish tyrant doesn’t say, “We have shot the bear, not killed it,” or “Stabbed the dragon, not slain it.” Shakespeare chose to personify Macbeth’s fear as a small, wounded thing that slithers over the ground. Macbeth acts for the sake of his own protection, not from an actual threat, but from his perception that something terrible waits for him in the dust.
In these darkest days of the year, we are reminded that we often do the same. But the promise of Advent is that God will not leave us with our real or imagined serpents. In Genesis, the Lord also speaks one of my favorite lines in the Bible: Where are you? I imagine God asking this question while looking directly at Adam and Eve’s feet sticking out from a honeysuckle bush. God knows where they are, physically. What he wants to know is what they’re hiding from. Where are you?
We never know when God will show up amidst our fear and brokenness and ask us where we are, but Advent reminds us that we can visit those dark places without the fear of being left there.
Where are you? God asks.
And we answer.
I had a great time reading from Confederate Streets and discussing the finer points of writing literary nonfiction at the Chattanooga Downtown Library last night. Thanks very much to those of you who came out, even with Riverbend going on! By the way, I have another blog of essays about Chattanooga at a not so secret location, if you’re interested.
As of today, Confederate Streets has been out in the world for four years! 2015 has been a good year for it so far. I have a piece about Sam Dodson and the Nashville Clergy Movement in the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. I read from “Our Most Segregated Hour” and some new pieces at Lee University in January, and tomorrow I’ll be reading and leading a workshop at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop at UTC. Thanks to you all for your support!
10) Iceland is not actually made of ice. It probably got its name due to the Vatnajokull – Europe’s largest glacier, which is in the southeastern corner of the country. The rest of Iceland has mountains, volcanoes, more glaciers, rivers, meadows, cliffs, black sand beaches, and this crazy moonscape-type area which isn’t found anywhere else in the known universe (well, except for on the actual moon). On the whole, Iceland is much greener than Greenland.
9) Iceland is all about confluences. It’s situated where the North Atlantic and Artic Oceans converge, though only a small part of the country, Grimsey Island, sits above the Arctic Circle. In Thingvellir National Park, the gap between the North American and Eurasian continental plates is visible.
8) Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, but maybe they should just call it Rage-kjavik. (As in the slang for partying, not a synonym for anger). The city is renowned for its runtur (literally “round tour”), a pub crawl which occurs both nights of every weekend all the year ‘round.
7) Perhaps because of their runturing, Icelanders are very fond of hotdogs, which are made with lamb and served with a special mustard. In the true fashion of a hangover meal, Icelanders pile toppings on their “pylsurs.” In 2004, Bill Clinton was skewered (see what I did there?) in political cartoons when he ordered a pylsur with no toppings. Other national delicacies include puffin, whale, and fermented shark meat.
6) In 2008, the Icelandic government established the Vatnajokull National Park, which surrounds the glacier of the same name. With glaciers, rivers, geysers, and such, the park embodies Iceland’s dynamic geology. About 12% of the country’s total land area is protected in the park, and Vatnajokull is, in fact, the largest national park in Europe.
5) J.R.R. Tolkien was a devoted fan of all things Icelandic. He studied the language at Oxford and taught Old Icelandic as a professor. Before the Inklings were the Inklings, they were the Kolbiturs (literally “Coalbiters”), a term for a type of hero in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic au pair watching after his children while he was working on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many of his ideas, such as trolls turning to stone, have roots in the types of stories Icelanders tell young children.
4) Icelanders like to profess a belief in elves, trolls, and, my favorite, a giant cat that comes down from the mountains at Christmas and eats all the children who didn’t get new clothes.
3) Convincing potential tourists that Iceland is more than a frozen, dark hunk of rock at the top of the planet has become a national priority. They’ve done a good job thanks to the Inspired by Iceland campaign, where visitors to a website can propose alternative names for the country, and watch videos of trendy people having a good time.
2) There’s more to Rage-kjavik than a pretty face. In 2011, it was named a UNESCO City of Literature. Reykjavik is the only non-English speaking city to earn this honor. Iceland loves its writers – there is even national union for them which provides modest living stipends.
1) Andddd….the most interesting thing about Iceland, at least to me, is that I will be spending most of the month of June there. Woohoo! Fist pump! The school where I work offers study grants for faculty who have taught at the school for at least three years. I’m wrapping up year six and finally decided to take advantage of it. This is what happens when you sit around on New Year’s Eve talking to two very well-traveled Classics teachers, I guess.
I’m thrilled. Aside from a few weekend trips to Canada when I lived in Montana, I haven’t left the country since I was 17. Like the American Transcendentalists, I’ve always defended and enjoyed the idea of “deep travel” – taking any place you happen to be and opening all five senses to it. I’m fine with road trips, and I know that I could spend the rest of my life exploring this corner of Appalachia and still not know all there is to know. However, there’s also something to be said for throwing yourself into a completely new place. This summer, that’s what I’m going to do.
I have some specific plans for the three weeks I will be in Iceland. I’m really interested in exploring the reasons for and effects of item #2 on my list. Why does this remote, sparsely populated country value literature so much? How does that valuation inform the national ethos? I’ll be spending lots of time in Reykjavik to get a sense of the contemporary scene, but I’ll also explore the Western Peninsula (where the Sagas were set), travel up to the northern capital of Akureyri for an arts festival, and make stops at various cultural museums and writers’ residencies around the county.
I have some days scheduled in for roaming around the natural landscape as well. So far, the Hornstradir looks the most interesting. It’s about as remote as you can get, and there are some backcountry tours I can connect with to get up there. I’m really hoping to see some puffins and whales in the wild, not just on my plate. (Ha, ha…I don’t think I’ll actually eat either, but one never knows about such things.) If you have been to Iceland and have any suggestions for things I should do, see, or eat, please leave a comment!
I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and interested to see how/if it changes the essays I write later this year. I’ve never claimed to be a travel writer, but maybe there’s a niche for me somewhere.
English is spoken almost universally in Iceland, but its citizens also take a great deal of pride in its own language. I guess that’s to be expected from a country that places so much stock in written expression. In hopes of at least learning the basic phonetics of the language, I’ve downloaded an app on my phone and poked around on YouTube. So far, Icelandic makes absolutely zero sense to me, but I have at least figured out how to say goodbye:
(Christmas Cat image taken from hugleikurdagsson.tumblr.com. Very cool site.)
It’s mid-January and I’m sitting here in my study next to my Christmas tree, which is shining forth from the front window in a blaze of white plastic, Wal-Marty glory. It’s time for it to come down, I know, but it’s been gray and rainy for over a week now, and the tree is such a lovely antidote for the darkness.
One July in the early 2000s, when I was a newspaper reporter in Middle Tennessee, I was sent out into the country to interview a woman who kept her Christmas decorations up all year. This didn’t involve merely a tree and a wreath on the door, as I’d anticipated. No, this sun-baked home on the outskirts of Mt. Pleasant was engulfed in Christmas. The shades were drawn against a blazing summer’s day and a scented candle in a jar overpowered the place with cinnamon. The house was stuffy, and many of the ornaments she collected played tinny renditions of Christmas carols. I can’t even remember why she kept everything up all year – I feel like her only answers to my questions were variations on, “I really like Christmas.”
I really like Christmas, too, but it seemed oppressive, this Christmas in July. To this day, there will be a summer afternoon when I have the AC cranking, a cold drink in one hand and a book in the other, and I’ll suddenly think of that woman. I’ll think about how she is sitting in shade-drawn darkness with a gingerbread candle blazing away while battery-powered Hallmark characters trill “Silent Night,” and it makes me a little sad. Life is meant to be lived in seasons.
I know I can’t judge the woman too harshly since I am, after all, sitting here with a tree that’s ready mark MLK Day celebrations. There’s a good chance that her early Christmases were spare occasions. Or she could just be really eccentric. Or both. Probably both. In any case, my tree is coming down very soon, but I might throw some colored lights up around my windows, because any light we can muster at this time of year is good to have.
January is when I feel most grateful for the fact that I am familiar with the liturgical calendar. In January, the weather is rainy; the sky moves in, close and cold. It’s dreary, but it’s also not a terribly busy time of year for me, so I can write and continue the contemplations I began during Advent. January brings the season of Epiphany. Advent is all about waiting for the Incarnation, reflecting on it. Epiphany is a chance to celebrate what the Incarnation means. Christ came for everyone, not just a chosen few. That’s a beautiful and weighty concept. The sermon I heard on the first Sunday of Epiphany dealt with that concept of Christ being a light for all people. The three kings (who were probably neither three, nor kings) are the ones who first had the wits to “search diligently,” as bad-guy Harod put it, for Christ. They saw what they believed were signs and acted on them.
As in Advent, Epiphany focuses on the symbolism of light. There are hymns about stars and the Old Testament scripture from Isaiah: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
The purpose of starting this blog up again is two fold – first, I wanted to post excerpts from essays I’m working on. Second, I wanted to reflect on the research I’m doing and the themes I’m mulling over – the big ideas behind the stories. This post serves the latter purpose. I’ve been working for some time now on an essay about travelling at Christmas. And here, in the flat light of January, there are thoughts from this past season that just won’t leave me, some ideas from December that I hope will continue to grow.
I enjoyed the Epiphany sermon this year because it seemed to fit in so well with the thoughts that rattled around in my brain during Advent. Like most Advents, I drove a lot, walked the dog a lot, read and journaled a lot. In the middle of all this contemplation came a national tragedy and its subsequent finger-pointing. I watched the news and read my facebook feed and did finger-pointing of my own. To me, the Sandy Hook shooting was a sign of our individual failures contributing to our failure as a society, our darkness. Sermons and Advent readings; however, helped to shift my focus just a bit. We dwell in darkness, it’s true, but it’s seeking Christ which is important. If I focus on my sins or on the collective sins of a society, if that is where I pour all my energy, I’m doing it wrong. In December, I read Watch for the Light, a collection of essays devoted to the season. One essay and story in particular will not leave me – Brennan Manning’s “Shipwrecked at the Stable.” In it, among other things, Manning relays an imagined conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo:
“Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”
“Of course, it means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”
“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”
“Right,” said Leo. “That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is – your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him. The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness, and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure, and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled – stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”
Of course, now that it’s January and life has moved back into its usual rhythm, the immediate instinct is to look at this passage and wonder how I’m doing, which is exactly what St. Francis says we shouldn’t do. It’s hard to quash that. The issue, I suppose, is walking the line between self-reflection and idolatry – a struggle which those of us who write creative nonfiction are already aware of.
A few years back, I went to church in downtown Jacksonville with my father on the day after Christmas. During the sermon, the priest gave a sigh and said, “Now it’s back to ‘the real world’, right?” Then, she corrected that perception. A world where we get caught up in the day-to-day, where we live by a mantra of ends justifying means, where we forget to treat the needy with respect and dignity – that’s not the world God intended. The real world, she said, is the one we celebrate at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. That’s the one we need to carry forward.
So, yes, it’s January. My tree will come down, but the lights are going to stay up, and I will continue to work on my essay about Christmas traveling and what that entails, not because I can’t let go of Christmas, but because Epiphany means I shouldn’t let it go, not yet. Winter looks promising indeed.