tossing your Valentine’s roses

pink roses
Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

 

Valentine’s Day– despite its roots in a decidedly dark origin story– is a holiday that has been commercialized into a monopoly fixated on romantic love. To those who are single, or those who are swimming the oceans of grief, it can be an isolating storm of grotesque sentimentality and farce.

photo of fireworks display during evening
Photo by Zichuan Han on Pexels.com

Infatuation, that stomach-lurch when your newly minted lover is close by, is rightly compared with fireworks. An impressive, all-dominating show that jolts your body to attention. But following the glorious display of wonder, the remnants fizzle and plop to the ground in unceremonious dismissal.

 

“When I fall in love, it will be forever.”

 

The very expression, “I fell in love with him,” implies something happened TO you; an uncontrollable state that you stumbled upon and had no control over.

 

However, if you can fall INTO love, you can just as readily and easily fall OUT of it.

 

Take a stroll down the card aisle at Target. Try to sort out a specimen that will accompany your flowers. It will 95% of the time reiterate this sentiment. Love as a feeling, not as a verb.

 

I’m not condemning the holiday. I’m all about celebrating the vast experiences we relish as humans, the abiding relationships that form from us being drawn to another’s beauty of personhood and depth of soul.

monochrome photo of people holding hands
Photo by Flora Westbrook on Pexels.com

But I do find the association between severed roses and Valentine’s Day an odd and fitting commentary.

 

 

Imagine yourself at the florist’s booth. Your eyes sifting through the line of bouquets, seeking the freshest, most richly hued, most bounteous assembly to bring home to your significant other.

 

You skip over the buds that are drooping, browning over. You consider the rose, in its full-bloom glory, a flower with petals soft as silk and a scent that must have intoxicated noses back in a world where indoor plumbing, frequent showers and deodorant didn’t exist.

 

Shipping systems strive for the perfect formula to keep these delicate flowers in their most desirous state. Science transports the cut-flowers across thousands of miles, preserving them in a constant temperature from the farm to the stores, a sort of suspended animation to promote their aesthetic state. Don’t expose it to harsh weather conditions, keep it constantly dipped in water and nutritious flower food, wear gloves so as not to allow the oils from your fingers to dampen the petals.

 

It is only fitting that this delicate, tenuous, blink-and-you’ll-miss it flower stands as tribute to the holiday surrounding romantic love.

 

It doesn’t last, nor is it meant to. We can artificially prolong its glamour, but it will still rot within a week’s time. No matter how glittering or bright the package that it came wrapped in.

 

If we want roses to last, what do we do? We TEND to them. We use our actions. We plant them in soil. We tenderly water them, give them sunlight, coax roots into being. We shelter them in a frost. We shape, cultivate, and invest our time and effort into them.

 

There is a song from Fiddler on the Roof that unpacks this. Tevye’s oldest daughter has just approached him with the village tailor, asking for his blessing in their marriage. He acquiesces, but also experiences a crisis of sorts, and goes to his wife Golde to sort it out.

 

“Do you love me?”

 

It seems like such an odd question to ask your spouse after 25 years of arranged marriage. But it unwraps the message that, despite two strangers meeting on a wedding day, a common vision unites two people of different temperaments. (Which if you know ANYTHING about Golde and Tevye, they are vastly different, as the musical comically plays upon.)

 

 

tradition

 

 

 

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson also explores this same question, “do you love me?” in his essay on the nature of friendship.

 

“Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo. There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two, large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them.”

 

As we toss our Valentine’s roses into the trash this week, let us remember the passion behind it all. Passion–at least that as marketed in our culture, romance novels and Hollywood films– is eros. A babbling brook, stimulating and noisy, drawing much attention to itself, but ultimately shallow, a creek whose bed dries up in a drought. We want passion like a river. Deep, abiding, substantial, meaningful.

 

 

bed of white petaled flowers
Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

 

It takes blood, sweat, tears to nourish a garden. But oh, how vastly rewarding it is, how GLORIOUS the passion that comes from sharing a common vision with your love who is your fellow traveler on this journey of sanctification in light of the eternal God.

 

 

 

 

the peace of wild things

I never heard of the author Wendell Berry until last year. In a fortuitous coincidence, I came across his writings in Oxford educated Sarah Clarkson’s book Book Girl and in the irreverent, but ruggedly individualist-comedic Nick Offerman’s Gumption. I was piqued by the samples of writing, and after receiving his Leavings compilation of poetry via interlibrary loans, I was mesmerized.

This month I was also able to dust off my camera lens and embark on a photoshoot. It was a triumph…my violinist-model serenaded me with Beethoven and Elvis Presley whilst we traipsed around moss ladened ground and heard turtles and larger reptiles slither into the marshes.

So, to honor the legend that is Wendell, I’m accompanying some slivers of his poetry and quotations to the portraits we accomplished.

(“How to Be A Poet”)

Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places. 
iii   
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

042A5403

 

 

come in beneath,

the blessed and the blessing trees,

though I am silent, there is singing around me.

though I am dark, there is vision around me.

though I am heavy,

there is flight around me. 

 

 

042A5412

 

It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are. 

 

 

042A5429

 

But a mute blessedness
Exceeding all distress,
The fresh light stained a hundred shades of green.

 

IMG_3376

 

 

 

This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.

 

 

 

 

042A5571

 

 

 

 

042A5634

 

(from “The bell calls in town”)

I leave work’s daily rule
And come here to this restful place
Where music stirs the pool
And from high stations of the air
Fall notes of wordless grace,
Strewn remnants of the primal Sabbath’s hymn.

 

 

IMG_3374

(cont.)

Uproar of wheel and fire
That has contained us like a cell
Opens and lets us hear
A stillness longer than all time
Where leaf and song fulfill
The passing light, pass with the light, return,
Renewed, as in rhyme.
This is no human vision
Subject to our revision;
God’s eye holds every leaf as light is worn.

IMG_3375

 

We travelers, walking to the sun,

can’t see
 ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessings now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

 

IMG_3398

(“The Peace of Wild Things”)

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief… For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

042A5859

 

2019 in Literary Review

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.14.28 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.14.21 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.14.15 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.14.10 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.13.59 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.13.41 PMScreen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.13.32 PM

 

For whatever reason, my Goodreads challenge insisted I read 69 books, but in actuality the “adult” books came closer to 50. I definitely had more read-aloud investment with the kids, and the children’s books that I wrote short reviews on made it to the Goodreads list. This year I discovered my love for memoirs. While I appreciate biographies, memoirs have that personal touch that embed the lessons into my mind and heart. Towards the end of 2019 I invested in reading more plays and poetry. I want to incorporate more of that as well going into 2020.

and all is undismayed

“We moved to North Korea to escape from our life of poverty in Japan. We didn’t see ourselves as taking part in some heroic endeavor to build a future socialist utopia.”

Thirteen year old Masaji Ishikawa, half Korean and half Japanese, was hauled to North Korea with the assistance of the Japanese Red Cross and dumped on its shores in 1960. His father was tired of being persecuted for his Korean race in Japan. He had grown to believe the pernicious lies told by the League of Koreans in Japan. That it would be like returning home, to a paradise where there would be jobs aplenty and opportunities everywhere.

 

After being deposited on the shores of North Korea, they were met with a harsh reality. It was anything but paradise. It was hell. Their first meal in that coveted motherland was dog food, which they attempted to swallow with noses pinched. It was an omen for how the government treated its people. Like beasts to be controlled and humiliated.

 

“The landscape was dreary, still scarred by bomb craters left over from the Korean War. Once we arrived, we were interviewed by officials who decided each person’s future occupation and accommodation.

 

They were stripped of their few valued possessions. Electric appliances, watches, semi-decent clothing. The secret police knew it would make fellow citizens acutely aware of their poverty to be exposed to such.

 

Masaji Ishikawa struggled in school, but applied himself while grappling with the new Korean language. He was bullied for being part Japanese. He despised the mantras they had to recite. The leader of Korea, Grand Marshal Kim Il-Sung, had a Ten Commandments (inspired from the Abrahamic) that was drilled daily into the young children.   We must stay loyal to the Great Supreme Leader. To his revolutionary ideas and to the glory of socialism.

 

Masaji wished to study physics. The subject fascinated him. But he was denied the privilege of pursuit. He was in the lowest caste of the social strata, the public official told him. He would never be able to attend the university, or even serve in the military. Therefore, he was given the role of farm laborer.

 

Secret police constantly monitored every family. No matter how much effort you put forth in your assigned job, you always received the same payment for your work.

 

For thirty years, Masaji endured unimaginable horrors. He lost his parents to undiagnosed and untreated conditions because they couldn’t afford the hospital and doctor visits. He stole clothes off a neighbor’s clothesline in an attempt to dress his 47 year old deceased mother in clothes that weren’t ridden with holes. The clothes he took were still tattered, and the nails he tried to drive in her coffin were not straight like the ones in Japan. He cried over the way he couldn’t even secure the lid properly. He cried as he took his motherless-newborn son door to door, humiliated to inquire, but desperately seeking a wet nurse for his newborn.

 

That’s when I broke down reading this book. I shoved it face-down and heaved hollow sobs into my hands. In our culture, men who cry are viewed as an anomaly. Men who freely acknowledge their tears are even more so. But this author, in all his 74 years of lived experiences with horrors unimaginable, articulates these hideous moments with a sincere frankness.

 

His family survived on acorns and roots and weeds. He marveled at how starvation turns the human face into a ghoul, how lips recede and reveal teeth that appear bared at all times- how noses turn into two slits. People were constantly perishing in the street. It got to the point where he stopped stopping to see who it was. Rumors of cannibalism abounded. He tries to commit suicide by hanging, only to have his death thwarted by a coworker who came back early from lunch and heaved him off the noose.

 

I haven’t felt so sickened by a memoir since Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have grown up richly blessed with health, family, resources. Reading these accounts is brutal, but necessary. I have never known what it was like to wonder where my next meal is coming from. Or wonder if secret police might come steal the chickens my father bought, because “you can’t have more than your neighbors are assigned to their weekly rations.”  Or be told I absolutely cannot ever work in  my dream field, because my caste is the wrong one. This world is so unbearably dark, and certain corrupt men in power have ravaged entire generations. And will continue to do so. Masaji did the unthinkable and managed to escape from North Korea, but left behind his family. To this day, he doesn’t know entirely who is still alive and who has died from hunger.

 

“I often think about what would have become of me if I’d stayed in North Korea. I would probably have starved too. But at least I’d have died in someone’s arms with my family gathered around me. We’d have said our goodbyes. What chance of that now? People talk about God. Although I can’t see him myself, I still pray for a happy ending.”

 

There is a line from one of my favorite tales from childhood that I cling to in The Return of the King. It is uttered by Frodo’s loyal friend Sam Gamgee.

The Lord of the Rings saga in its grand finale depicts the ageless trope of the ultimate fairytale.

That a King, a hero, will rise up and bring healing to the land and its people.

 

A similar thought is encapsulated in a poem of Wendell Berry, another author whose body of work I’ve grown to cherish:

 

And this, then,

Is the vision of that Heaven of which

We have heard, where those who love

Each other have forgiven each other,

Where, for that, the leaves are green,

The light a music in the air,

And all is unentangled,

And all is undismayed.

In this time of Advent, my thoughts leap to this hope of a Redeemer. This glorious wonder that is the Incarnation of Christ. That He would deign to become fully human and join us in all our miserable, vulnerable state. As a tiny, helpless infant, hungry for milk, possibly cold, in want of clean water for a bath, and placed in a manger. (And despite popular decorations purporting otherwise, a barn is a disgusting place with fecal matter embedded in the wood and ridden with rodents. When a video of an inmate giving birth in a Lysol splattered jail cell caused great viral consternation earlier this year, think of the utter insanity of it all that the King of the World should be subjected to worse. But that is entirely the point.)

 

A man of sorrows. Despised and rejected by mankind.

 

Our King. Our Victor to bring everything sad untrue.

 

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a hymn that perfectly represents this Advent season.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

 

As we sing this in church, we reflect on his first coming, but we also intensely anticipate Christ’s second coming.

 

Where our King will make everything sad come untrue.

Where all will be unentangled, and all will be undismayed.

Redemption in Tolstoy

When Sarah Clarkson was pregnant with her first child, the Oxford scholar took to writing a book dedicated to the babe with the intent to inspire her to grow into a reader. The book, aptly titled Book Girl, is a glorious tribute to the power books have in profoundly shaping the person we long to become. Image result for book girl sarah clarkson

In the book, she discusses the Christian fiction category at the booksellers, filled to the brim with “Christanese” speak, but inadvertently featuring a secular plot and form. She then contrasted these books with great classics, like those of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, books written in secular text, but depicting a vividly Christian worldview.

 

“Anna Karenina is about an affair, while bookstore may carry ½ dozen Christian romance with couples who get to their wedding with nary a kiss. Dialogue may include verses straight out of the Bible, while Anna Karenina revolves round the decadence of Russian high class society, gossipy intrigues. But many “Christian” romance stories focus on a secular model of romance and self-fulfillment, where emotion is valued as truth, where trouble miraculously disappears. Anna Karenina wrestles with desires of heart and integrity—and handling the consequences of “listening to your heart.”

 

 

In the musical theatre world, I recently discovered Nastasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812. Its plot is lifted from Tolstoy’s other well-known tome, War and Peace. It’s been out longer than Hamilton, and yet am just now personally discovering it. Why did it take me this long to find out?? Lin Manuel Miranda was inspired to cast Phillipa Soo as Eliza based on her fiery performance of Natasha in this show back in the initial cast.

 

It has a bit of a messy start. The original performer they had settled on to play Pierre was Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin of Criminal Minds, Inigo Montoya, and Yentl fame. He would have been INCREDIBLE. But he voluntarily bowed out of production after a tweet storm originated over the blind casting fan-favorite for Pierre hadn’t been chosen.

 

I wish recordings exist of Patinkin in the role. He would have interpreted the depressed, earnest Pierre with appropriate angst. The alternate who was ultimately picked, Josh Groban, is vocally amazing—obviously– and in the glimpses of live performances I have come across, he is decent at capturing the man’s rage and sensitivity. But he seemed miscast in that he was too youthful to portray him with all the weight of aged bitterness in inherent to the role.

 

Props to Groban in extending his talents into the acting realm."Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" to Close in September After Casting Controversy

The music in the show is a heady conglomerate of musical genres. Russian folk (most obvious choice, since it’s a dinner theatre reenactment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace), 80s pop, EDM.

 

His musical stylings to character development are replete within the score.

Take Natasha’s big solo, in which the bride-to-be gushes over her supposed devotion to Andrei despite aaa disastrous meet up with the future in laws. There is a parallel 4ththat rocks as a triplet over the bass clef chords. The music lacks a stable center, which is indicative of Natasha’s own lack of stability in her “love” for Andrei. One song later, the naïve 19 year old is swept away by the pompous, preening Anatole at the opera, and she commits wholeheartedly to a man who is already married, a fact she didn’t even think to inquire on.

 

There are chilling, beautiful moments of dissonance. When Pierre survives a duel, his song “Dust and Ashes,” conjures up a perfect blend of bitterness over wasted years and hope for salvation. “Is this how I die?”

 

Groban’s tender and fast vibrato provide a gorgeous vehicle for the song’s message. By the end of the musical, in the song referencing the show’s title, “The Great Comet of 1812,” Pierre as a protagonist finds meaning in this glorious display of creation. Tolstoy used nature not as a background to the plot, but as a physical manifestation of his character’s own inner turmoils. While the comet heralded apocalyptic doom for others, Pierre sees it as a beacon of hope and renewal for his own mature life.

 

“I gaze joyfully

 

And this bright star,

Having traced its parabola

With inexpressible speed

Through immeasurable space

Seems suddenly

To have stopped

Stopped for me

 

It seems to me

That this comet

Feels me

Feels my softened and uplifted soul

And my newly melted heart

Now blossoming

Into a new life”

lost at sea

It is isolating to be a mom. Yes, it’s isolating to be frail and elderly, or to be a year deep in med school, or to be the first female president. But motherhood is the territory I’m currently navigating.

tenor

I know that seems contradictory. After all, what other time in your life will you constantly be surrounded by persons that vie for your presence the second they open their eyes until the second they close them?

Their feet tumble after you when you head to the bathroom, when you go fold laundry, when you fetch the mail.

 

 

And I love it. I really do. For YEARS I craved that precious fellowship, and felt I might never reach the privilege of being a mother.

 

But here are the conditions in place for the isolation. First off, it begins with a major life event: the birth.

 

The 21st century birth in my country is most women’s first exposure to the hospital. Many times it is the first time you get an IV. Or find yourself signing consents for major surgery. And then you are experiencing the subsequent blood loss. (One doctor who recently graduated from med school told me the bloodiest area of medicine by far is labor and delivery. The amount of men that pass out watching their wives give birth is also a testament to that) And then the searing stitches. And if you had a c/section, the abdominal muscles are crying out at having been torn through and folded back together. And… guess what? In this time of complete vulnerability, you are suddenly and utterly deprived of sleep.

 

Because…

child baby newborn arms
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

you are responsible for a feeble, helpless person, one who is wholly dependent on you for sustaining them. For bringing them to appointments, for recording wet and dirty diapers, for navigating this confusing “instinctual” world of nursing. Nursing, as some of my CLC (certified lactation counselor) will say, is like a 2nd labor in itself. Especially when it’s your first. AS instinctual as it’s supposed to be, it sure doesn’t feel natural until weeks in and you’ve finally established of rhythm. When they do sleep, you stare at them, assessing their sleep mattress, ensuring safe sleep standards, and checking the rise and fall of their chest until you feel satisfied that they are fine. Then you check on them five minutes later in a panic, convinced the battery may have fallen out of your plugged-in video camera and you couldn’t hear those imaginary cries for help that were firing off in your mind.

 

The last night I was pregnant with Titus, I went to bed with fireworks blazing outside. A friend texted me, “you going to stay up until midnight?” It was the last day of the year of 2015. It was 9pm. I texted back, “no, because next year I’m gonna do plenty of midnight hours. 😛 ”

 

Oh, how true that was! I was admitted the following morning. I was so jittery with excitement in the hospital that I couldn’t sleep but for 15 minute stretches every couple hours at night. By the time we were discharged, 5 days later–thanks to the IV antibiotics my son had to receive– I maybe had slept a combined total of 8 hours according to my handy, dandy Fitbit. Not unusual fare for people inducted in the halls of parenthood.

 

We went home. The sleep onslaught escalated. My 9 lb 5 oz goliath baby wanted to nurse every hour and remain in our arms constantly. I remember texting the lactation consultant, my eyes bleary with want of sleep that I could barely see the iPhone screen at 2pm. “Is this NORMAL??” I essentially whined. Her immediate response was validating and warm and filled with suggestions and encouragement, but I fell asleep on the shag carpet of the nursery before I could articulate a response back.

 

 

When my husband went back to working nights, there was one time I was dragging myself from room to room, holding Titus in a cradle position, just praying for him to fall asleep long enough so I could try and close my own eyes. I was playing my Titus sleep playlist on Spotify, making my usual trek around the house to lull him to sleep. I checked on him 20 minutes into the ritual and was thrilled to see him  snoozing. As I quickly headed to the nursery, I veered off to the side in an ill-fated exhaustion-stumble, and his bald, little noggin banged emphatically against the door frame.

 

He instantly woke up, peals of distress ringing out anew.

 

The sleep deprivation, the inability to waltz into and out of a store without at least two tantrums, the paranoia that swoops in when you look away to check a deal on a shelf and your child suddenly disappears, only to be found nestled behind the peanut butter tower at Kroger.

 

It’s exhausting! But, in our isolation, we have to recognize we are not alone.

 

 

We are all in this together. The mothers who were in our shoes, twenty, forty years ago, assure us that the time will pass all too quickly.

 

 

We see the memes of how many Saturdays we have left from now until our child’s graduation from high school. The closer I get to 3-0, the more I realize that I have failed to live in the moment. My new prayer is that I will do more rejoicing in the moment and not awaiting the next phase. Too many times I chose discontentment because I wasn’t a) done with nursing school or b) finished with NCLEX or c) married or d) in a house and not an apartment or e) didn’t have babies to hold or f) had night shifts at work to contend with.

 

Yes, it is isolating; but babies are only young once. At the same time, to help refresh our souls for this season, we should take advantage of self-care. The mother’s day out programs, the offers for free babysitting,  the lunch delivered by kind-hearted individuals from church, our efforts to read books to stimulate our minds or listen to podcasts while the babies nap.

 

One cautionary tale I’ve experienced are the deleterious effects social media can have in search for community. The omnipresent social media “mommy” groups. When I had my son, I was added to a frenzy of local mom groups. I would surf through the posts and find that the majority of them revolved around complaints and gripes. This doctor treated us rudely when we said no to vaccines. This husband of mine refuses to pitch in with the housework. This landlord won’t honor our deposit now that we’re moving out. My M-I-L fed my kid red dye when I have repeatedly told her NOT to. And so on.

 

It’s reflective on human nature that negative posts generate the most attention. Neil Postman in his 1980s book Amusing Ourselves to Death discusses this demoralizing feedback system via the information-action ratio; that we are constantly besought with a deluge of news and it is impossible for us to personally respond to each item. When we feed our brains constant noise of other people’s mundane grievances, we tip the scales in our brain with negative information. We become full of clutter; it is useless clutter that does not edify. We become numb to actual grievances by normalizing ambivalence as we scroll through.

 

Secondly, there is an insidious prevalence of MLM companies pushed in these mom threads. I struggle to form friendships in mommy groups, because each friend request I’ve ever gotten was immediately followed with a “hey hun, you seem like you could really benefit from this product.” It is even more disheartening when it’s an old friend you haven’t seen in years. They pop you an IM, asking how you’ve been and would you care to meet for lunch, but come to find out the REAL reason they’re contacting you is because they’ve discovered this AMAZING new eye cream/lip gloss/weight loss shake/energy pills/aromatherapy/wraps/candles/handbags etc.

 

thumb_havent-seen-in-years-me-pyramid-scheme-0-heeeyyyy-so-45535628

 

I don’t support multilevel marketing strategies. These pyramid schemes (oh, but those are illegal many will say, yet draw out a literal pyramid when showing their system, aka  Michael in The Office) prey on stay-at-home moms with the false narrative that you can make money by selling their product in this misconstrued business model. I fell for a few a couple years ago under the notion I really was supporting a friend’s venture, and paid inordinate amounts of money trying to support people over products that were decidedly cheap and not FDA approved. The company founders, such as Beachbody or LulaRoe, thrive on the notion of tribalism. Be part of our team! You may win a trip for a cruise. Or access to paid weight loss surgery. Check out this documentary from Vice on LLR. I found it a devastating insight into the industry and its toxic repercussions.

 

How did you make tangible efforts to combat that feeling of isolation and fatigue in your early years as a mother? Do you think social media has made it easier or more difficult for us as a community? How can we combat the pitfalls?