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Alight with Wonder September 27, 2013

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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weed

I am working from home today, and I put aside a thesis to go and cull weeds from a disobedient front lawn. I have bare hands and bare feet. The sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy, and the cool late September breeze makes me breathe.

A hundred – a thousand? – little ants panic when I pull up their taproot home. A wedge of geese announce their fly-by with sharp honks that sound too much like fake goose honks to be real goose honks. A shadow catches my eye, dark before I see its maker, the brightest yellow butterfly, bumbling just past my ear.

I dirty my hands, and pretend for a moment that I’m not a soft city boy. There is soil under my fingernails, and my hands are spattered brown and red. Aged, like the leaves will soon be.

The world is alight with wonder. Creativity is under our feet and over our heads and, if we take the time to touch it, in our hands.

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Let there be light August 1, 2013

Posted by markgeil in Academia, Philosophical musings.
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light switches

There are 12 light switches in the front of the lecture hall in which I taught this summer. They are rather Spartan, labeled with one of those clicky Dymo labelers like I had when I was a kid. But they’ve become metaphorical for me in a cheesy kind of way. Every Tuesday and Thursday for seven weeks I’ve turned them on, thinking about the so-called “light of knowledge” I have hoped to impart to these students.

Light is a powerful word. Darkness is the place of the unknown, where things are hidden that are probably scary. Light is revelation. In the light, our path is clear. The darkness, as Sting wrote in an old Police song, “makes me fumble for a key to a door that’s wide open.”

I have been teaching undergraduates for 16 years, long enough to become jaded and cynical. Though I am sometimes cynical I have lofty hopes for my students, every semester. I hope to inform their future careers, to get them to view the world a little differently, and, from the Pollyanna stronghold that lives in me, fighting the cynical self, I want them to enjoy learning, just for learning’s sake.

This summer’s class was Biomechanics. I told the students early on that they probably have an intuitive thinking about the subject, based on how it looks like the world works. So did Aristotle. But in the case of the laws that govern motion, at least, Aristotle was wrong. I told my students that I wanted them to stop thinking like Aristotle and start thinking like Newton. Along the way, some did. There were even singular moments of epiphany when a certain student would finally grasp a concept, when they seemed to enjoy learning.

Today I gave the final exam. I turned the lights on, distributed the exams, and took my lofty perch in front of the 70 seats. About an hour in, a few questions came, as they sometimes do. And I became disappointed, as I sometimes do. Seven weeks, and all those lectures and homeworks and review sessions and I still have students who don’t know the difference between mass and force. They leave me, unchanged, and I become cynical again. Two and a half hours after I had turned those 12 switches on, I turned them off again, frowning at the dark unknown.

Walking back to my office, I pondered blame. What could I have done differently to reach those students who learned so little? Or was it their fault for barely trying? Then I thought of myself as a learner instead of a teacher. I thought of all the lessons God wants to show me and the ways He wants to illuminate my darkness. He has beauty to show me, and mystery, and wonder. And I sit at the feet of the perfect teacher and I barely even try.

In a roundabout way, I’m inspired by my students’ failures. Certainly, I try to improve as a teacher. But I’m also motivated to learn! I want my own singular moments of epiphany in the lessons around me. I want to be changed. I want the light switches to stay on.

Fall semester is only two weeks away. Another 70 students await, for undergraduate biomechanics. And I will turn the lights on.

The Melancholy of Autumn October 29, 2012

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The squirrels in our back yard are confused. Yesterday, I finished a major culling of vines, weeds, and the remnants of this year’s garden. My chainsaw broke twice slicing through vines as thick as my forearm, coiled around much thicker trees, and the squirrels’ playground is now sparse. I should probably burn the resulting tangles of vegetation, but I would certainly catch the trees on fire and probably a neighbor’s house, so instead I just made massive piles in our small woods.

Topping one of those piles is what’s left of our cherry tomato crop. Bright red tomatoes still cling to a few of the vines, even now on October 29, even as most of the leaves have withered. There are few spiritual metaphors mentioned as frequently as seeds and gardens and fruit, but as I pulled the roots from the ground and untangled the tendrils from the cages, I was struck by the wonder of it all, as if I’d never before seen a seed sprout.

We bought these tomato plants from a school fundraiser catalog, which is to say we paid about 500% more than they were worth. They were supposed to be those fancy, modern upside-down hanging plants. Apparently that only meant the packet of seeds was accompanied by a plastic bag with a rope attached to one end and some perforated holes. We had to supply the dirt, start the seeds indoors in small cups, fill the bags, punch out the holes, transplant the baby cup-plants into the bags, nurture them flat on a table outside, then, finally, hang them and watch them grow. We did all that, up until the final step, whereupon we did hang them and watch them die.

We had extra seeds, so we decided to plant a handful in the back yard near the deck. These, perhaps grateful to be in a proper, less modern environment, grew. We watered them, and fed them, and they kept growing, and dozens and dozens of little green tomatolings were born.

Though I do not actually like cherry tomatoes, I harvested our bumper crop throughout the summer, filling buckets and bowls every week. I even tried to make homemade salsa with the little buggers, but the product of the hours of effort wasn’t nearly as good as the free stuff at Moe’s. Eventually, vines overtook our deck, escaping their wire cages and crawling along chairs and walls. In the end, we had grown and eaten and given away so many cherry tomatoes that I was content, yesterday, to pull up the vines without even picking the last little late bloomers.

A bitter wind whistles now through that back yard, setting free showers of leaves that paint the ground sepia. They are leaves from trees that we planted, when the kids were young, or not yet born. They were willow oak saplings that fit in the trunk of Amy’s parents’ car, and now they are rooted, and stand taller than our house. And all around them is death.

The melancholy of Autumn is the part of the story that all the metaphors about seeds and gardens and fruit tend to ignore. The leaves whither and fall. The tomato plants die. One day, even those willow oaks will succumb to disease, or wind, or just plain old age. Yesterday, though, as I noted how little effort it took to pull those huge dying plants up out of the ground where we had so recently placed such tiny seeds, I realized it’s all a good thing. God could have made perpetual plants, forever fruit, but this death, this cycle, is a better way. For the sprouting of a seed and the bearing of fruit is a miracle glorious to behold, and we get to do it over and over again.

Creation is the lifeblood of the created, and to be flabbergasted by growth and bounty is a gift. To know that an end is inevitable is to appreciate the present, and to trust in the promise that the melancholy will make way for joy.

The Land of the Living September 24, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Music, Philosophical musings.
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[Upon returning from Hutchmoot, the annual gathering of folks from The Rabbit Room to celebrate music and writing and all things bright and beautiful.]

This guy named Andrew Peterson said this guy named Frederick Buechner said something that really resonated with me, that spoke to my eternal soul, but I can’t remember what it was.

The abundance of Hutchmoot means that words and moments of sublime wisdom fall all around me like shavings from a whittler’s knife, such that I forget more brilliance in one long weekend than I’ve remembered all year. I feel like Rich Mullins when he sang, “There’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see.”

My “dream session” happened on Saturday morning this year. The aforementioned Andrew Peterson, as gifted a singer-songwriter as I have known, and Ben Shive, who possesses a preternatural musical intellect, were discussing the life and music of the similarly aforementioned Rich Mullins, the name I fill in the blank beside “All-time favorite musician”. Stoked, I was.

At the appointed hour I made my official photographer rounds to each session and landed at Rich-fest. Which is to say I landed near Rich-fest. The little chapel room was full. The doorway was full. I was three-deep outside in the foyer, straining to listen. I actually cocked my head to one side like a curious dog hoping the scant soundwaves might better land in my ear.

What I heard was like the fragmented call of a one-bar cell phone. A couple of audible sentences would thrill me – this really was AP and Ben talking Rich! – and then the whole room would laugh warmly at a statement I did not hear. I heard the start of a discussion about the elusive lyrics of “Land of my Sojourn”, and then someone in the foyer ordered some sort of frothy coffee that made all kinds of noise.

Standing just outside the room, forlorn and frustrated, I was suddenly reminded of my place in this fallen world. I don’t intend to deify Andrew and Ben and Rich, but in that moment they represented a glimmer of the Divine. The conversation in that chapel was something I desired because it spoke, in my language, of the beauty and mystery of the Creator and His Heaven. And I couldn’t hear it all because of an untimely cappuccino. I was a Mullins mendicant wandering off toward a cathedral, aching for the glory inside, stuck at the door.

Then, someone left. And none of my fellow mendicants moved to claim the empty seat. So I did. I took my place inside, where I could hear every word. I was no longer an eavesdropper, but a participant. And then Ben started playing a familiar hammered dulcimer part on his keyboard, and Andrew sang, “Well the moon moved past Nebraska and spilled laughter on them cold Dakota hills.” And then my fellow participants and I started singing along, in that infinity-part harmony that only seems to happen at Hutchmoot. And I felt the thunder, and I saw the Lord take by its corners this old world, and He shook me free to run wild with the hope.

I am home now, and Hutchmoot is past. In some ways I’ve left the chapel again, and I am back in the foyer where cars are double-parked and noisy televisions make their political noise. But I have learned that though we toil on this side of Heaven until eternity, though we are soiled and temporal, the doors to glory are not barred. We might be butterflies, fluttering frantically amidst the fumes of a grimy gas station, but by the grace of God we are butterflies nonetheless, and loftier breezes and cleaner air are in our skies.

I am determined to seek the glorious, and to seek it often.

“I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”

Psalm 27:13

A Father Looks at Forty July 15, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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It was a halcyon image. A mother and her preschooler with armfuls of sidewalk chalk stood back, admiring their work. “Happy Birthday Mrs. Ruth!” declared their multicolored message, stretched from one driveway to the next in front of a presumably unsuspecting neighbor’s house.

I imagined Mrs. Ruth, probably an older lady, smiling when she arrives home. Then I imagined the smiles the little girl brings when she plays in Ruth’s yard. Other images played like a photo album on my short drive home through our neighborhood:

Two boys, on the way home from the pool, hurried to a shady spot because the sidewalk burned hot in the Atlanta sun.

A child, on a walk with her parents, switched to holding mommy’s other hand to avoid the spirited dog coming her way.

A frustrated father stooped over to push a little bicycle while the helmeted child walked alongside.

And then, for a moment, there was me, all philosophical, pondering my place among these scenes of the stages of life. I even let a Jimmy Buffet chorus escape my lips, out loud, there in the car by myself: “Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder, I’m an over-forty victim of fate, arriving too late, arriving too late.”

The words don’t exactly fit me. I like to sail but I really don’t think I’d have been a very good pirate. I’m neither discontent nor disconcerted. But I AM forty years old, as of June 28th. Seems like one is supposed to get all philosophical when one turns 40 so, mainly out of sense of obligation, I sang out strong and pondered my place.

My children are growing up. We’re scouting out colleges instead of preschools. The girls’ ages are all in double digits. Rebekah was born the day before my 30th birthday, so she just turned 10. She got her ears pierced, and she’s getting all leggy and tall. Mind you, there’s still loads of childlike silliness and life in our house, but I can’t avoid certain monumental thoughts:

A year from now, we’ll be thinking about what to do with a spare bedroom when Sarah moves off to college.

I’m probably closer, chronologically, to holding a grandchild than I am to holding my own baby children.

Forty is halfway, right? It’s probably over halfway.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not really sad about any of this. A favorite thing for seasoned parents to say to their younger counterparts concerns the pace. “Don’t blink,” they say. “They’ll only be that little for a second. It goes by so fast.”

I suppose that’s true, and maybe we’ve heeded that advice, but I feel like time’s passages are pretty appropriate. I feel like we’ve squeezed a lot of life into these years, and we’ve been so very blessed. My memory of Sarah’s first steps seems as distant now as my memory of my own childhood, but that’s okay. We’re making new memories, and even though they’re growing up, the children are taking new “first steps” all the time, and I’m still there, hands outstretched, guarding and protecting and celebrating.

So when I do step back and philosophically view my life from a wide-angle lens – which is good to do every now and then – the images are halcyon. And as I look at forty, I do so with nostalgia and not regret, with anticipation and not melancholy, and above all, with gratitude.

A lesson in the Auburn trees February 17, 2011

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I was born and raised on sports, and I have known some fine rivalries in my day. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, back when N.C. State was good at basketball. The twice-a-year State-Carolina basketball game was intense. Subsequent meetings in the ACC Tournament were even more passionate. Throw Duke into the mix, and local bragging rights were up for grabs on a regular basis.

Raleigh was mostly red, so the occasional cyanic infiltrations of Carolina or Duke blue brought spirited squabbling. We made jokes about them, they made jokes about us. We cheered when we won (oh, those were the days!) and blamed the refs when we lost. We argued superiority on playgrounds and school halls and we pretended to be our favorite State players beating the Tarheels at the basketball hoop behind our house.

Then I grew up and moved to Columbus, Ohio for graduate school. It was there that I met Big Ten football, which is to its fans what ACC basketball was to me as a child. I also met “Ohio State – Michigan”, which many consider the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Of course, this was back when Michigan was good at football. (Oh, snap!) I smiled when the folks in Columbus refused to mention the name of their foe, instead calling them “That Team Up North”. I was impressed by the calendar of events for “Michigan Week” preceding the annual showdown. Finally, I went to The Game, and understood, and I was no longer an observer but a participant in this grand rivalry.

Then I grew up some more and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I figured that with Georgia Tech right here in town this would reconnect me with ACC basketball. I was wrong. Atlanta is unabashedly SEC country, and their rivalries are about SEC football. But they’re different. The rivalries I knew had bitterness, and they had hatred, but they had boundaries born out of mutual respect. Here, the rivalries, and Auburn-Alabama in particular, seem too often to lack any respect at all. There is bitterness, and hatred, and it is deeply personal. People won’t let their children play with neighbor children because they root for the other team. Seriously. They harbor generations of resentment and affront and it feels more like a deep grudge than sport. And they seem proud of this anger and hostility. Because saying “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle” is not enough. That’s what average fans say. They are serious fans, so they must punctuate the battle cry: “Roll [expletive] Tide! War [expletive] Eagle!”

And it has apparently culminated in this. An Alabama “fan” called a Birmingham radio station to boast about what he did to bitter rival Auburn. “The weekend after the Iron Bowl,” he declared, “I went to Auburn, Ala., because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the Toomer’s trees.” He was referring to Toomer’s Corner, the site of Auburn’s post-game celebrations and the beautiful live oaks that get rolled after victories. He was serious. The soil has been tested, and it’s loaded with a herbicide so strong you can’t buy it at the local garden store. The century-old trees will likely die.

The moron has since been arrested, and the outrage from both sides is reassuring. His actions are certainly not typical of fans in any rivalry, Auburn-Alabama included. He has irreparably damaged an icon and his actions have left a scar on his own side of the rivalry that will take a long time to heal.

Hopefully, though, that healing process will include a little self-examination. Are we taking things a little too seriously, a little too personally? Have we lost the concepts of respect and civility? Can a rivalry not breed enjoyment, but only hatred?

My daughter went with a friend to her first big-time college football game, and it happened to be at Auburn during their recent championship season. She marveled at the spectacle and the pageantry, and she when she went to Toomer’s Corner after the game she felt a connection to a storied legacy. Oh, how sad, for fans of Auburn, and Alabama, and football, that one loser took the rivalry way too far. But let us guard ourselves so that we teach our children pageantry and legacy and not hate.

A Confession of Hubris November 8, 2010

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[I wrote the following for an online devotional for professors and academic-types. I’ve revised it slightly here.]

I am blessed to be able to dabble in a few other disciplines in addition to my day job as a prof. Freelance writing has given me the opportunity to explore the Christian music industry in ways I never expected, and it’s been tremendous fun. Along the way I’ve learned quite a few things, and one in particular has stuck with me lately. It’s a common thread I’ve witnessed in interviewing and hanging out with artists and listening to their stories at conferences like Hutchmoot. When I compare it to the reality of my day job, I’ve realized a danger associated with academia that I had not noticed before.

One after another, artists tend to mention seasons in their lives when they’ve felt hopelessly unworthy. Unworthy of this calling to minister. Unworthy to create art in the presence of the Master Artist. Unworthy to wear this banner of love that is creation. For many, this was mentioned as an almost daily struggle, something that feeds an unhealthy tumble toward self-loathing. Their tales are equally similar as they found their worth as a child of God. For many it was a rediscovery of God’s love for each of us and the boundless gift of grace.

These stories have fascinated me, and I regard them with a detached sort of admiration and the strong sense that, for my part, I really consider myself a bit too worthy.

It’s my job to be an authority in my discipline. Decisions regarding things like promotion and tenure consider my reputation among my peers, nationally and internationally. I’m an “expert” witness in the courtroom, an author who has passed rigorous peer-review, and I stand before students every day as the authority from which they might learn.

It’s not just those trappings of academia that trouble me, though. I have long had a ridiculous internal confidence. If I read about an award, I promptly apply and I assume I will win. If I submit a proposal for a grant, I start making plans for the inevitable funding, even if only 10% of those proposals ever get funded. All this despite the reality that I rarely get the award or the funding. Ostensibly, I’m in a good profession, because all those elements of reputation and authority tend to grow symbiotically with my own rather narcissistic self-assurance.

So, I marvel at artists’ tales of inadequacy and shudder at my own perceived worthiness. I have realized their little discoveries of grace were like the return of the prodigal son, and my Pharisaical superiority was like the older brother’s curmudgeonly pouting.  

Now, I’m struggling, but in a good way. I’m struggling to be a perceived authority who knows he is worthless apart from grace. There’s a balance there, even in academia, as long as I recognize that worthiness cannot be attained through my knowledge or station. Seeking knowledge is certainly a good thing, but any “authority” I may thereby attain must be counted as a little sliver of insight about God’s vast and extraordinary creation. And I must be daily grateful for those little slivers, gifts from the ultimate Authority.

A Cry in the Night October 11, 2010

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It was a cry in the night that pierced the darkness. It really was. That’s how I wanted to start this story, but that’s the cliché that has started a shelf full of bad mystery novels, so I can’t use those words anymore. Still, it was a cry in the night.

This was the cry: “Daddy!” It’s a cry that makes any father snap to attention like a restless coyote. It was the only sound to be heard across a dew-soaked pasture sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning during Girl Scout Daddy-Daughter camp. I heard it in the cold confines of our tent, from somewhere outside, and I was among a whole bunch of potential recipients of the cry for help.

I go to Daddy-Daughter camp every year, one weekend with Rebekah and one with Hannah. And every year, I’m constantly turning my head when I hear, “Daddy,” along with all the other men within earshot. The daughters are all called by name, so at most three or four Hannahs would look up when I called my daughter’s name. But all the fathers are called “Daddy”, so we spend a lot of time turning our heads toward the wrong plea.

It was easy to decide that my own daughter was not the one calling out that night, though. I opened my foggy eyes enough to see a tousle of brown hair sticking out of a sleeping bag, still asleep. And, truth be told, I did not exactly snap to attention. It’s just not in me. I sleep too soundly. Much to my wife’s dismay, I can still be trying to figure out who I am while one of our kids is throwing up in the bathroom. I think the girl calling out “Daddy” in the dark must have had a father like me, because he did not immediately answer. And so she called again.

                Daddy! … Daddy? … Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!    …  Come here!

By the third or fourth pitiful cry I was pondering whether or not to go out myself and see what was the matter. You know that maternal instinct they talk about? Well, for all our “suck it up” bravado, there is something deep inside a man that is awakened by a little girl’s cry for help. It’s the Rescue Hero that is wired in us all, and even if it’s been dormant for years a single little voice can call it to service.

I heard no more cries after that, and I will never know what caused them or fixed them. Confident that the problem was solved, I drifted back to sleep, but not before I thought of one more cry in the night that pierced the darkness.

                Abba!    Father!

We had pondered these words at Bible study the previous Monday night. They were uttered by Jesus during a long night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just before, He had thrice declared that He was in a state of deep depression, terrified and sorrowful to the point of death. He had cause to fear. The mob of 600 soldiers and hired thugs was on the way to arrest Him, setting in motion the events leading to the most painful of deaths. He knew that. More profound, though was the spiritual task Jesus foresaw: a moment unlike any before or since, a moment of separation from God.

So it was that Jesus, God Himself, bowed down on the ground before God. Can you imagine such a scene? So it was that Jesus, feeling the most human of emotions, cried out in the night.

                Daddy!   Daddy!

And so it was that God heard, and mourned, because He could not be a Rescue Hero. Oh, such a rescue would have been easy for God. 600 soldiers? Piece of cake. The far greater challenge was to not rescue. But God knew, and Jesus knew, that this was the only way. The only way to save me, and you, and even that little girl at camp and her father.

It’s a fairly rote expression in church to say that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. It is only when we get a hint of His plaintive cry in the garden that we begin to not just know what it means, but to feel it.

Hutchmoot: Marching Orders August 23, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Church, Philosophical musings.
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[This is the fifth and final log in my Hutchmoot diaries. Scroll down on the home page to start from the beginning.]

The esteemed Mr. Wangerin was kind enough to humor a long line of well-wishers and autograph-seekers following his address. It’s a funny thing, the autograph. Here I was in a room full of musicians I greatly admire, with a car full of their CDs, yet I did not ask a single one for an autograph. But I had no hesitation to get my copy of the Book of Sorrows inscribed. Are autographed books cooler than autographed CDs?

One more call from home and I learned that prayers were answered and all was well with Rebekah. She and Amy made it home from the ER safely and I breathed relief while Amy devoured a several-hours-late dinner. I had sat way in the back for the Wangerin talk so I could hop in and out for phone calls, but with my family safely home I ventured forward, and for the second straight night took a front-row seat at a concert. This was a gathering of the Square Pegs Alliance, a group of singer-songwriter types who get the concept of capital-S-Story. I was amused by the motley piles of guitars and cases on either side of the platform. One of the cases was all covered in some kind of silver foil. It looked like a Jiffy-Pop to me.

It is not often that I think much about what Heaven will be like. I figure it is my certain destination and it is bound to be better than anything I could imagine, so I just don’t dwell on it much. That evening, though, the thought occurred to me that this might all be a lot like Heaven. There, in a church, among a group of people with a common love for Creator and creativity, words were sung and melodies were played for the sake of God but also for the things that make His children, like beauty, humor, and love.

Each of the ten performers took two turns at the microphone, in order, without introduction or excessive fanfare. They played whatever song seemed to fit, accompanied by just enough words to make it all make sense. They backed each other up sometimes, and borrowed each others’ gear, all for the sake of the Story. See? Heavenly.

And then there was the camel song. Right in the middle of it all, Randall Goodgame took his second turn at the mic and sheepishly (but provocatively) declared, “I can’t believe I’m going to do this next song.” It’s from his upcoming Christmas album for kids, and it opens with a stern and appropriate castigation: “Everybody loves the camel song. Why don’t you?” As I listened to the many virtues of the camel, I kept wondering how he was going to turn this into a Christmas song. For me, the odds were on a Magi-carrying dromedary seen in some of those plastic Nativity sets. Oh, was I wrong! The Camel Song took a sudden turn into a galaxy far, far away, reminded us of the name of those big hairy white beasts from the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, rhymed the name of the actor playing Luke Skywalker with the song’s namesake, and triumphantly pronounced the Tauntaun a “Christmas Camel!” See? Heavenly.

The last artist took the last turn at the mic, and we were reminded of the temporal again. Andrew Peterson said a few parting words and then suggested we close with the Doxology. In all my days I’ve never heard a sweeter sound. The sanctuary could not contain the worship. There were harmonies upon harmonies, and the sound so completely swelled that I felt the fullness all around me. The last word was sung – “Amen” – and we all stood, motionless, desperate for it not to end. In Heaven, it won’t.

I fumbled out of the room with the shimmer of the music still lighting my ears. It had grown quite late, but I was still desperate for this to not end, so I went to the living room for the so-called fireside chinwag. There, in the little kitchen and not near the fireside, because when people chinwag they universally do so in the kitchen, I had a lovely chat with Whit and with AP’s wife and children. I thought of my own sweet wife and children, safe and sound back home, and I smiled.

Sunday morning brought church, Anglican style, an abundant brunch at a place called the Copper Kettle, and a final session in which four authors read chapters of their books. At the worship service I delighted in hymns, Psalms, and – get this – not even the Apostles’ Creed but the Nicene Creed! At the Copper Kettle I delighted in the opportunity to alternate bites of omelet, beef, and pastry over warm conversation and recollection. Storytelling, it was. At the final session I delighted in Jonathan Rogers’ Georgia accent, and I decided I want him to read me a bedtime story every night, if that’s not too weird.

And then, I went home. The drive was pleasant, as always, and gave me time to reflect. As so many have said, it was indeed wonderful to be in a room with all these like-minded and similarly-interested people. It was a privilege to sit under the tutelage of so many gifted artists. I learned from their topics and their words, but I also learned from just being around them. I learned that they all seem to “feel” more deeply than I do. You might not believe it from my maudlin stories, but I’m still pretty analytical at heart. I noticed something else, too. Over and over I heard a speaker confess feelings of inadequacy and fears of failure. They would stand on a stage and speak of the times when they did not want to stand on a stage, when they struggled to see themselves as God sees us.  Again, I am quite different. My confession is not feeling inadequate, it’s feeling too adequate. My pride makes me long for the stage and the spotlight, and I am too quick to think I belong there.  It is instructive to understand these differences and to know we’re on the same team, seeking the same goals.

More than anything, I grasped a newfound appreciation for story itself. I’ve always appreciated art for art’s sake, but I can appreciate it so much more when I understand from whence it came and to what end. Beyond that, I understand the power and responsibility that comes with storytelling. We don’t just share our small portion of the one great Story. We must know that in the telling, we have an effect on others. These, then, are my marching orders, spoken by Wangerin. These are the words that will give me pause every time I tell a silly bedtime story to my kids, or prepare a talk for the kids at Awana, or post on this blog, or interview some musician and write about it.

“This is what shapers do for those who have neither universe, nor personhood, nor name: We weave the world around them.”

Hutchmoot: Composed Experience August 16, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings, Writing.
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[This is the fourth installment of my recap of Hutchmoot 2010]

Saturday promised to be a memorable day. We were set to be at the church all day, and indeed, I soaked it all in from early morning until well past midnight. This, I gather, was the day in which the organizers had some nebulous concept of what might happen, and they had done an excellent job lining up speakers and themes, but I don’t know that any one of them quite knew how the day would unfold. I can’t imagine any of them were disappointed. In retrospect, Friday prepared us, Sunday let us catch our breath and reflect, and the day in between was a saga in which heads were filled and hearts were… well, now I’m struggling for a word. Some were encouraged, but that’s not profound enough. Some seemed to be rent and put back together. Let’s call mine illuminated.

The morning meal was called “Cold Breakfast” on the schedule, which sounded marginal to me, so I ate a Pop Tart on the way over. I should have known the spread would be fabulous, rivaling the genuine continental breakfasts I’ve had in Europe. Devotions followed in the sanctuary, a first reminder of the joy of liturgy and responsive readings for this Presbyterian-cum-Southern Baptist. There was already a familiarity present, since so many had met on Friday, and I felt like I was among friends.

The first session I attended was called “The Immersed Imagination”, and was led by Andrew Peterson and Ron Block, speaking about George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis. After Peterson opened with a bit of context and a caveat about some of G-Mac’s beliefs, he and Block each read an essay he had written on the topic. I would have thought this would be a horrible mode of presentation, but it was strangely engaging. I wrote a page of notes in my slow, messy broken-hand script, and here are a few things I learned:

Apparently (I’ve never read more than a page of his writing), MacDonald’s fiction was meandering and child-like, the product of an excessive and exuberant imagination. Lewis counts him as his major influence. In the two of them, storytelling becomes a way to help us “see” with the fresh perspective of a child. It’s like snapping a photo of something versus drawing a picture. Each captures the same object, but they explain it differently. Many times, the picture is better than the photo, because it couples an object of observation with an interpretation of an observer. Both are God’s handiwork, so I think the picture lets us see not only an object but also another glimpse of God.

Block mentioned that in his own Bible study he often discovers truths that have already been placed in his heart through the fiction of authors like Lewis and MacDonald. What a wonderful and frightening possibility! The author can take the truth of God’s word and try to convey it in a story. The reader then captures a hint of the truth, which prepares him to receive the real deal from the Word. There is a profound place in God’s plan for storytelling.

Two more quotes from the session that meant a lot to me:

                “The few real moments of clarity in my life happened when the child in me was awakened.”

                “Don’t let a theological superstructure obscure the Word. Read it like you’ve never read it before. Approach it as a child.”

Peterson and Block had both brought guitars to the session. I found out later they were really there as security blankets in case they ran out of things to say. It is bittersweet that they did not, as I would have quite enjoyed a duet. As it was, I was satisfied just listening to the inimitable Mr. Block tune up.

My next session was “Perfected in Weakness”, featuring Pete Peterson, Travis Prinzi, and S.D. Smith. S.D. is really Sam, the first person I met at Hutchmoot. These gentlemen also read essays pontificating on Walter Wangerin Jr. and J.R.R. Tolkien. There was much talk of the antihero in story, and the observation that the best authors allow their characters to have flaws, since so many of our best moments come when God works in our weakness. Sam started by speaking of Samwise Gamgee, a character with no status who is infinitely important in accomplishing a task only he could do. Another Tolkien story tells of a character unknowingly gifted by an outside source and explores how the character would use the gift. Isn’t that our life in Christ?

Prinzi spoke eloquently of the reality of the fall, and how too often we (as writers and readers and even as parents) try to soften the fall too much. We know there is supernatural terror in the world, but we pretend it doesn’t exist. This, Peterson added, is another purpose of story. We can only understand abstract ideas through firsthand experience or through story. There are things we must understand but do not wish to experience; for these, story is vital. Peterson evoked the parables of Christ and books like Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow in saying, “We don’t tell stories to communicate fact. We tell stories to communicate truth that we cannot otherwise explain.”

Peterson, through tears, read a final scene from Saint Julian. I promised myself to make more time to read.

Prinzi also gave me some surprising insight about the grand climax of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, something I had never thought of before. You’ll have to ask me about it sometime.

I missed two parallel sessions featuring Eric Peters, Jason Gray, Jonathan Roger, and Russ Ramsey. As expected, I heard great things.

Lunch was upon us, and with it more Hutchmeets and more good food. The afternoon brought the whole group back together for two panel discussions, the first with authors and the second with songwriters. I know I’ve used the word “story” over and over, but the whole weekend I understood quite naturally that the term applies as well to a novel as to a song. And by that I don’t mean to limit this to story-songs, in which a pony named Wildfire busts down its stall. No, like prose, songs of all sorts can tell a tale, even if they don’t even have lyrics.

The Story panel assembled authors, pastors, and even a filmmaker to help me further understand why I write and teach. The song panel gathered eight musicians to help me further understand why I like music so much. Here are a few things I learned:

The purpose of preaching is not to convey information but to make an impression. By extension, a good song was likened to simple mathematics. (NOW they were really speaking my language!) If the equation is 2 + 2 = 4, the song should not simply tell us “4”. It should tell us “2 + 2”, leaving us to conclude, “4”. The authors quoted C.S. Lewis (often), who said that story can “steal past those watchful dragons,” the baggage of fact and inhibition and prejudices that prevent us from understanding. All three of those points support one another.

The songwriters spoke some of craft, and I was riveted. Someone (I wish I could remember who) spoke of a childhood trip on a glass-bottom boat. He was mesmerized by this new undersea world, awakened to a greater reality, until a lady nearby dropped her sunglasses onto the glass, breaking the child’s other-worldly spell. Songwriters “break the spell” when they draw attention to themselves. Another musician concurred, saying, “Just because I can write a song in 7-8 time doesn’t mean I should.” This is obviously true of writing as well. Just because I know a fancy word doesn’t mean I should seek to shoehorn it into a sentence. (I try very hard not to do that. Honest.)

By this point in the day I noticed I was no longer star-struck by any of these distinguished presenters. Such is their humility and rapport. During the break between panels I stepped outside to call home, and noticed Andy Gullahorn pushing his kids on a swing at the playground right next to where my car was parked. The fact that my car contained a couple of his CDs, with songs I know by heart, no longer felt the least bit odd.

It was during that call home that I learned my youngest daughter was headed to the urgent care center for a lingering case of sharp abdominal pains. After the second panel, I got word that she’d been sent to the emergency room for fear of appendicitis. All this talk of story became jolted by reality, and I kept close tabs on her condition. The trip home would be about 3 hours and 15 minutes, so I didn’t exactly know if I should leave right away or wait and see. Amy did a wonderful job taking care of Rebekah and gave me peace through my anxiety and guilt.

I was late to dinner and the only available seats were at a table being reserved for some similarly late-arriving guests. My new friend Whit, the Cruise Director for the weekend, kindly asked if I might be willing to move later because they might need those seats for the likes of Michael Card or Phil Keaggy. Dude, for them I would skip dinner and just sit in a corner and stare if needed! Turned out I got to stay, and I got to share dinner with Don and Lori Chaffer. If you know them as Waterdeep, you either get cool points or you were at Hutchmoot and knew that already.

I ate quickly and followed the news from home, where a blood test result necessitated a CAT scan. I got to talk to Rebekah, who sounded okay and was apparently braver than her mother when they inserted the IV. I kept checking in with Amy at the hospital and Sarah at home until Amy’s phone ran out of minutes!

Back in Nashville, Walt Wangerin, Jr. was introduced. There could not have been a better talk to tie together all the brightly colored threads of insight we had discovered that day. Even with my divided attention and constant prayers for Rebekah, I managed to understand as he spoke of art as “composed experience”. Although the artist might have finished creating it, art is not fully realized until it is experienced. Art seeks a recipient. I think that’s what AP meant in that line about being alone in Many Roads.

Wangerin took to teaching, and revealed the Old English word for art: scop, pronounced like “shop”. From that word we get shape. Artists are shapers. Again, what a wonderful and frightening thought!

I ducked out a few times to get calls from home. CAT scan was negative. One more blood test was ordered, and then the plan was to send Rebekah home. Relief. Thanksgiving.

Wangerin concluded with an entrancing story about a broken man in prison and the power of perhaps the greatest short story ever uttered to finally reach him. I won’t try to retell it, because I won’t do it justice. I’m told you can read a version in his Advent Meditations. With his final, acutely motivational words, Wangerin took a seat, almost mid-sentence. The room was utterly silent.

A moment passed, perhaps two. We convinced ourselves that, indeed, the talk did have to come to an end. We applauded with esteem and thanks and a hint of awe. If you’ve read the Dun Cow, you’ll appreciate the gift Walt was given to thank him for his address. What to give someone to thank him for speaking about art at a conference full of artists talking about art? A plaque? Perish the thought! Instead, Wangerin was given a commissioned painting of Chauntecleer the rooster perched on the back of Mundo Cani dog.

Looks like I can’t capture all of Saturday in one already over-long post. There was still one more concert that night, and Sunday after that. So, a bit more to come.