Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Architects of Heaven

What if—just by wishing—you could change the world?

What would you do?

In the last post, I explored the idea that wishes are what lay behind (and under and above) reality. It’s one thing to talk about wishes; it’s another thing to actually do something with those wishes. If we really do have the power to change the world through our wishes, how do we decide which wish is worth wishing?

Grograman by Brianne Lamanna

I really appreciated the discussion of how difficult and dangerous wishing can be from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. In this story, the boy Bastian receives the power to wish almost anything into existence, but he’s overwhelmed by—and uncertain about—the infinitude of decisions that lay before him. Here’s a bit of the dialogue between Bastian and the wise Grograman (the “Many Colored Death”):
[Grograman said,] “Without a genuine wish, you just have to wander around until you know what you really want…[In the end,] you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.” 
“How can I find out?” [Bastian responded.] 
“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last. It will take you to what you really and truly want.” 
“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian. 
“It is the most dangerous of all journeys.” 
“Why?” Bastian asked. “I’m not afraid.” 
“That isn’t it,”Grograman rumbled. “It requires the greatest honesty and vigilance, because there’s no other journey on which it’s so easy to lose yourself forever.” (chapter 15)

The rest of the story follows Bastian as he finally finds what is worth wishing for. But, like Grograman says, the process of learning exactly what to wish for is a difficult, dangerous journey. 

There have been countless stories of people who are suddenly given the infinite power of making their wishes come true immediately, and how such wishes can easily ruin lives. Among my favorites of these classic stories are “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H.G. Wells, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (not to mention the Simpsons’ masterful adaptation), as well as the more contemporary Into the Woods (which I recently wrote about here). The moral of these stories is always: be careful what you wish for.

But what happens when people wish well?


In his short book As a Man Thinketh, James Allen captures this beautiful possibility:
The dreamers are the saviours of the world. As the visible world is sustained by the invisible, so men, through all their trials and sins and sordid vocations, are nourished by the beautiful visions of their solitary dreamers. Humanity cannot forget its dreamers; it cannot let their ideals fade and die; it lives in them; it knows them as the realities which it shall one day see and know. 
Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, sage, these are the makers of the after-world, the architects of heaven. The world is beautiful because they have lived; without them, labouring humanity would perish. (“Visions and Ideals” in As a Man Thinketh)
I’m particularly fascinated by the idea that artists (of all sorts) are among the architects of heaven.” For Allen, this present world—with all of its wish-driven potential—can become something of a heaven. Looking back on my own experiences with great works of art, I can see how these creations—these tangible wishes—have transformed the world into something heavenly. 



A clear example of this is the Watts Mortuary Chapel in Surrey, England. Mary Watts (who married G.F. Watts, whose work I’ve written about here) brought together the people of Compton village to create, through art, a sort of heaven on earth—a building that became saturated with symbolism, both without and within. 

Mary Watts and her students decorate interior panels for the chapel in her studio at Limnerslease.

What is implicit in Allen’s statement is that each of these artists—these dreamers and wishers of goodness, truth, and beauty—seem to be engaged in a collaborative effort to shape this earthly heaven (this is another idea that has invaded my thoughts, which I hope to return to in the near future). 

But lest we think that becoming an “architect of heaven” is limited to a few artistic geniuses, Allen goes on to encourage every living person to carefully cultivate their wishes and join this far-reaching architectural community:
Cherish your visions; cherish your ideals; cherish the music that stirs in your heart, the beauty that forms in your mind, the loveliness that drapes your purest thoughts, for out of them will grow all delightful conditions, all, heavenly environment; of these, if you but remain true to them, your world will at last be built.
Whenever we respond to the good, the true, and the beautiful produced by others, we are amplifying the power of their wishes. And every time we produce something that reflects these ideas—no matter how small or insignificant it may appear to be—we ourselves are in a very real way becoming “architects of heaven,” right here, right now.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Wishes Make the World Go ‘Round

What if everything around us—the world, the universe, and even our very lives—came from wishes?


"The last of Fantasia" from The Neverending Story (1984)

This is a theme that I’ve noticed in several books I’ve been reading, and it’s an idea that’s been lurking at the back of my mind for some time now. My most recent wrestling with this idea came when I read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (in print and audio). After reading about the mythical land of Fantastica’s slow road to ruin, the boy Bastian enters into the story itself, only to find that he is surrounded by nothingness. In the darkness, the Childlike Empress of Fantastica approaches him, after which Bastian whispers:

“Is this the end?” 
“No,” she replied, “it’s the beginning…” 
“Fantastica will be born again from your wishes, my Bastian. Through me they will become reality.” 
“From my wishes?” Bastian repeated in amazement.

He heard the sweet voice reply: “You know they call me the Commander of Wishes. What will you wish?” 
Bastian thought a moment. Then he inquired cautiously: “How many wishes have I got?” 
“As many as you want—the more, the better, my Bastian. Fantastica will be all the more rich and varied.” (Chapter 13)

Bastian has a blank slate with which to create an entire world—all he has to do is wish it into being. I was especially touched by the Empress’ suggestion that the more Bastian wished, the more “rich and varied” the world would be. That idea made something within me sing—could we really make the world brighter and more beautiful through our own wishes?


This thought reminded me of another passage I had read a few months earlier in Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street (print, digital, audio), a modern-day reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this story, a teenage boy named Mack is in the middle of a war (of sorts) between the fairy king Oberon and the fairy queen Titania. Having been raised in a post-Enlightenment world where the quantifiable reigns supreme, Mack is surprised to learn that the immaterial, intangible, and unquantifiable play a significant role in the world around him: 

"That's what humans never understand," said Titania. "They're so seduced by the material world, they think that's what's real. But all the things they touch and see and measure, they're just—wishes come true. The reality is the wishing. The desire. The only things that are real are beings who wish. And their wishes become the causes of things. Wishes flow like rivers; causality bubbles up from the earth like springs. We fairies drink wishes like wine, and inside us they're digested and turned to reality. Brought to life. All this life!" (Chapter 23)

This sentiment of bending reality to your own will is essentially the same lesson—packaged just a little differently—in the international bestselling book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (print, digital, audio). A closely related and similarly successful book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (print, digital, audio), which was the source of this fairly popular quote (judging by the number of times it has been adapted on Pinterest):

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” (Part One, p. 24)



This statement is inspirational, to be sure, but it’s inspiring in a very vague sort of way. There’s something, however, that the inspirational language of The Secret and The Alchemist doesn’t address: the fearful gravity of our ability to wish. Such gravity is highlighted in Magic Street—in the conflict between fairies, the wild dreams and secret thoughts of Mack’s neighbors begin to come true, leading him to ask Titania:

"How do you do it? How can you collect a wish and turn it into—something in the real world?" 
"Don't you understand? Wishes are the true elements underlying all the universe. Mortal scientists study the laws, the rules, the way the dominoes fall. But we can see underneath it all to the flow of wishes and desires. The tiny wishes of the smallest particles. The vast, complicated, contradictory wishes of human beings. If mortals had the power to see the flows, the streams of desire, if they could bend them the way we can, then they would constantly be at war with each other. They stay at peace only because they have no idea of what power is possible." (Chapter 20)

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

If wishes are what lay behind and under and above reality—and if those wishes have the capacity to generate good, bad and everything in between—then we should all be much more mindful of our wishes.



Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Speaking with the Dead (and the not-quite-dead)



***The third in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.***

The shrieking book from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I’ve found that good books speak so loud that they make me want to talk with them (and sometimes even argue with them). In some of the best books I’ve read, the margins end up teeming with my own thoughts, questions, and accusations. And in rare cases, the book responds. 

A page from our well-loved copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This is something that I think I’ve somehow always known, but never fully realized until I read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne Valente. At the tail end of the book, the author describes a conversation she had with one of the characters (a dragon-like creature who is also part library), in which they discuss their love of books. Last week, I shared her first two reasons why books can be so life-changing, and now I present to you her third (and final) reason:

Three: People are Books…When you read a book, it is not only a story. It is never only a story. Exciting plots may occur, characters suffer and triumph, yes. It is a story. But it is also a person speaking to you, directly to you. A person far away, perhaps in time, perhaps in space, perhaps both. A person who wanted to say something so loud that everyone could hear it. A book is a time-traveling teleportation machine. And there’s millions and millions of them! 

This is something that’s easy to forget when we hold an inanimate object in our hands. Yes, it is a book, but that book is also proof that a living, loving mind has lived and felt that she or he had something worth saying to the world. It’s as if a thought has been frozen, waiting for the warmth of our own mind to thaw it and bring it back to life. She continues:

When you read a book, you have a conversation with the person who wrote it. And that conversation is never quite the same twice. Every single reader has a different chat, because they are different people with different histories and ideas in their heads. Why, you cannot even have the same conversation with the same book twice! If you read a book as a child, and again as a Grown-Up, it will be something altogether other. New things will have happened to you, new folk will have come into your life and taught you wild and wonderful notions you never thought of before. You will not be the same person—and neither will the book. 

Hopefully you’ve had this experience at least once—you pick up a book you read when you were younger, only to find that it says something completely different. I begin to wonder if someone has played a trick on me, until I continue reading, and realize that the lenses though which I’m reading the book have been polished and warped (and sometimes scratched). The book is—at heart—familiar, but made less-than-familiar by the life I’ve lived since first making its acquaintance. Sometimes the book makes more sense to me. Sometimes less.

Bruce Wayne trying to read while dreaming in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Perchance to Dream"

Finally, Catherynne ends her wisdom on the life-changing nature of books by reminding us of the very personal nature of both writing and reading:

When you read, know that someone somewhere wrote those very words just for you, in hopes that you would find something there to take with you in your own travels through time and space.

A book is a universe, a voice, and a gift. The more that we read truly good books, the larger we become on the inside, giving our hearts much more room to grow than the narrow cage of an isolated mind. Yes, books can do this, but somehow they can also do more…


Catherynne gives an alternative meaning for this third principle, but you’ll have to pick up The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There to find that out. And these were only taken from the bonus materials after the story itself, so hopefully you’ll want to pick up a copy for yourself (and an extra one to lend out to folks). And if you don’t want to wait to get one in the mail, you can also get a digital and / or audio copy immediately


Oh—and don’t forget to read the first book in the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (also available digitally and auditorially[?]). These are books that are sure to give you something meaningful to take with you in your own adventures through time and space.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Reading Books, Reading People


How can being “bookish” actually help you to connect with other people?

A Benedictine monk reads in a monastery (borrowed from here).

When someone uses the word “bookish” to describe themselves or others, it’s easy for us to picture a solitary monk, spending his entire life in silence, with only the written word as a companion. And this same image might come to mind when seeing someone in public with her or his head buried in a book—secular monks cloistered in plain sight. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Available in physical, digital, and audio forms

As I mentioned in my last entry, Catherynne Valente has managed to make visible the subtle magic of reading in her book The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. In exploring why books can be so life-changing, she gives three reasons—the first was “A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book.” Here’s the second:
Two: Books Are People. Some are easy to get along with and some are shy, some are full of things to say and some are quiet, some are fanciful and some are plainspoken, some you will feel as though you’ve known forever the moment you open the cover, and some will take years to grow into. Just like people, you must be introduced properly and sit down together with a cup of something so that you can sniff at each other like tomcats but lately acquainted. Listen to their troubles and share their joys. They will have their tempers and you will have yours, and sometimes you will not understand a book, nor will it understand you—you can’t love all books any more than you can love every stranger you meet. But you can love a lot of them. And the love of a book is a precious, subtle, strange thing, well worth earning.
You see, the ways we can learn to love books and love people are essentially the same. The more we open ourselves up to the world of a book, the more we should be able to open ourselves up to the many worlds of the people who surround us. 

Here’s how Catherynne concludes:
And just like people, you are never really done with a book—some part of it will stay with you, gently changing the way you see and speak and know.
When we approach both books and people with open hearts and open minds, they can help to transform us into something much better and brighter than we possibly could have become on our own. And one of the beauties of both books and people is that there are always more that we can get to know. 

Our heroine, September, befriends a wyverary (part wyvern, part library).

Along similar lines, elsewhere in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland one of the characters explains why being bookish can be such an adventure: 
Of course, a library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.
If we can learn to see our lives as expansive, ever-growing libraries (of both books and people), we can also learn to love more frequently and fiercely. This is “bookish-ness” in its highest and holiest sense.



Next time, Catherynne’s third (and final) piece of wisdom on the importance of reading books.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Universe in a Book


Sometimes it’s hard for me to put into words the reason why words have changed me. Luckily, I’ve found someone who was able to do just that. 



One of the most imaginative, thoughtful, clever, and just plain magical books I’ve ever read was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (which, if you haven’t read, stop what you’re doing and read this right now—the book is available here, and the audiobook here). Her follow-up book in this series, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, was just as good (available here and here). 




It was at the very end of this second book that Catherynne managed to capture why books can be so life-changing. She gives three reasons, the first of which I’ll quote below (stay tuned for the next two): 


One: A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book. Inside a book, any Physicks or Magical Laws or Manners or Histories may hold sway. A book is its own universe and while in it, you must play by their rules…This is why sometimes, when you finish a book, you feel strange and woozy, as though you have just woken up. Your body is getting used to the rules of your own universe again. And your own universe is just the biggest and longest and most complicated book ever written—except for all the other ones. This is also why books along the walls make any place feel different—all those universes, crammed into one spot!


I always get excited when I walk into a room full of books—be it a bookstore, a library, or my own living room—and Catherynne helped me to understand why. Rows upon rows or worlds, stacked back-to-back, are just waiting for us to enter them and to be changed by them. 


Jesus College Fellow's Library, Oxford


Stay tuned for more…


Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Mystery--and Beauty--of Death


Death is a mystery, but it can be a beautiful mystery.



When I first saw this painting by George Frederic Watts (c. 1870), there was something about it that made me stop and take it in for a long while. At first I only noticed the dark tone of the painting and the sad looking people standing before a somber-looking angel, which seemed like a good fit for its title: “The Court of Death.” But I felt compelled to keep looking, and that’s when I noticed the variety of people coming before this dark angel.




Here, a reluctant-looking king lays down his crown, a crippled man looks up hopefully, a knight lays down his sword (I swear the skirt on his chain mail is black and blue), and an elderly man stands off to the side, deep in thought. Although the social and economic status of these individuals couldn’t be more different, in the end they come together as equals. For me, that was a powerful thought that reminded me of life’s transitory nature, and the importance of becoming a good, just, and charitable person. 

However, one of these things was not like the other. Just above the head of the sword-less knight was a woman who was noticeably lighter than the others—an impassive (or is she emotionally drained?) soul, leaning against the angel of death for support. As I thought more about this woman with her white sheet draped over the angel’s leg, my eyes returned to the imposing heavenly figure at the top of the painting, and it was then that I noticed him cradling something in his lap. The painting was small, and the colors so dark that it was hard—almost impossible—to make out such a small shape.



After I left the gallery, I searched for images of this painting and found that Watts had painted something similar, titled “The Angel of Death” (c. 1870). In this much lighter scene, the image in this angel’s lap is easier to see—it was an infant. This realization had every reason to make me sad, but instead I was struck by the beauty of this scene. Of all the ranks of the dead who came before him (or her), there was a special place in this angel’s heart for children who had passed away. 

After spending time with this painting, the idea of death was so longer a fearful mystery for me, but a mystery that was full of beauty. 

And maybe even life.


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Secret Magic of Everyday Life

It's easy for me to get dragged down by the undertow of everyday life and for me to feel that I'm living in a quiet, slowly-moving, and unremarkable world. Sometimes it takes a fantastic, otherworldly story to save me from drowning in the seeming ordinary-ness my own day-to-day life. I was reminded of this recently as I read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (book available here and audiobook here). 


This is a fascinating book about the power of stories, how they can affect us, and how we can affect them (if you haven't read it, you really should). Bastian is an extraordinarily ordinary boy, who upon reading a magical book, becomes a part of its story. At one point he meets Atreyu, the hero he had been reading about, who ends up becoming fascinated with Bastian's world and the seemingly mundane experiences of Bastian's daily life:
It surprised [Bastian] that Atreyu should take such an interest in the most everyday happenings. Maybe it was because of the way Atreyu listened that these everyday things took on a new interest for Bastian, as though they contained a secret magic that he had never noticed before (chapter 18).
From Bastian's perspective, Atreyu's world was the magical one. However, from Atreyu's perspective, his own world was ordinary, and it was Bastian's world that was truly magical. The experiences of these two characters hadn't changed at all, but how they saw their own stories was fundamentally changed by interacting with someone (or something) outside of each other's own limited, personal experience.


When I read truly imaginative books, I begin to sense that same sort of "secret magic" that exists in my own life, as well as the lives of those around me. It is this initiation into the magic of my own life that keeps me reading.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Relationships, Fairy Tales, and Magical Transformations

One of the many kinds of magic that fairy tales possess is the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, through the simple waving of a story. George MacDonald knew this magic well, and his writings have helped me to see my world with enchanted eyes. Case in point—after reading The Day Boy and the Night Girl recently, I somehow gained an even greater appreciation for my wife and the consistent, yet subtle effect she’s had on me (this seems to be a trend in the fiction I read—see my post on how Tolkien’s writing did something similar).

Borrowed from fearlessjournal.com



Here’s the premise of the story: In a heartless quest for knowledge, a witch decides to perform an experiment to see what would happen if one person only knew the light of day, and if another person only knew the darkness of night. She captures two newborn children (a girl and a boy), and raises them in these extreme settings. Eventually, the boy raised only during the day and the girl raised only during the night both escape their carefully-controlled environments and are exposed to the foreign worlds of night and day. Naturally, both are terribly frightened by these unknown and unimagined circumstances.



One night, the girl (Nycteris) comes across the boy (Photogen), who is experiencing darkness for the first time. Nycteris manages to comfort Photogen by helping him to see the beauty of the night, which calms his heart. Photogen responds in the following: 
“Thank you,” he said. “You are like live armor to my heart; you keep the fear off me.”
It was this short statement that helped me to realize yet one more of the many types of magic that my wife has been working on me. When I’m worried (scared, really) about how we’re going to get by or being able to create a meaningful future for our family, her words and her presence calm my heart. She is the live armor that I didn’t even realize I had been wearing.

"Endymion" by G.F. Watts (1872)

During another of their encounters at night, Photogen is scared to travel through a forest. In the daylight, Photogen is a skilled hunter who thrills at encountering fearsome beasts. However, robbed of his ability to see such monsters and meet them with weapons, he’s hesitant to travel through such seemingly dangerous territory. Nycteris, however, sees a different solution:
“I see [the beasts] long before they can see me, so that I am able to take care of you.” “But how?" persisted Photogen. “You can't shoot with bow and arrow, or stab with a hunting knife.” “No, but I can keep out of the way of them all. Why, just when I found you, I was having a game with two or three of them at once.”
Nycteris presents a solution that is completely outside Photogen’s way of understanding the world. Whereas he only knows the violence of combat, she not only knows how to completely avoid the creatures, but is friends with the beasts and actually plays with them. Ultimately, it is her unique approach that gets them both through the forest in safety.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John William Waterhouse (1893)

Throughout the story, the two regularly use their unique strengths to save each other. This sort of situation is illustrated beautifully in the following passage, as the two struggle to distance themselves from the witch’s castle:
“Lean on me,” Nycteris would return, putting her arm around him, or patting his cheek. “Take a few steps more. Every step away from the castle is clear gain. Lean harder on me. I am quite strong and well now...”
When the morning began to come, he began to grow better, but was dreadfully tired with walking instead of sleeping, especially after being so long ill…At length, both equally exhausted, neither was able to help the other. As if by consent they stopped. Embracing each the other, they stood in the midst of the wide grassy land, neither of them able to move a step, each supported only by the leaning weakness of the other, each ready to fall if the other should move.
It is at this low point—halfway between sunset and sunrise, when the two are equally exhausted—that the partnering of their mutual weakness is actually the only thing keeping them from falling. However, as the sun finally rises, we read:
When the tide of the night began to ebb, the tide of the day began to flow…And ever as [the sun] came, Photogen revived. At last the sun shot up into the air, like a bird from the hand of the Father of Lights. Nycteris gave a cry of pain and hid her face in her hands. “Oh me!” she sighed; “I am so frightened! The terrible light stings so!” But the same instant, through her blindness, she heard Photogen give a low exultant laugh, and the next felt herself caught up; she who all night long had tended and protected him like a child was now in his arms, borne along like a baby, with her head lying on his shoulder.

"Love and Life" by G.F. Watts (1884-85)

The image of a natural ebb and flow in relationships is striking, and rings true to my own experience. By the time that these two characters are finally freed from the witch, we see that they fully realize their need for each other. Photogen says:
“If ever two people couldn’t do the one without the other, those two are Nycteris and I. She has got to teach me to be a brave man in the dark, and I have got to look after her until she can bear the heat of the sun, and [it] helps her to see, instead of blinding her.”
The relationship between Nycteris and Photogen isn’t one of merely helping the other to endure. Rather, their unique relationship allows them to be transformed by the other, becoming more mature and developed than they possibly could have separately. After the two are married,
[it was not long] before Nycteris had come to love the day best, because it was the clothing and crown of Photogen, and she saw that the day was greater than the night, and the sun more lordly than the moon; and Photogen had come to love the night best, because it was the mother and home of Nycteris.
"Sun and Moon" woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

This is what a relationship with my wife has done for me—it has helped me not only to endure personal difficulties, but has helped me to see the world through her eyes. I love the dazzling world that I now see more than the one I thought I knew before, and this new world has only become more and more vivid as time has gone by.

There’s quite a bit more to this story that I haven’t touched on (truly appreciating nature, the power of imagination, the danger of self-love, etc.), so do yourself a favor and get a copy of the book (physical, electronic, or audiobook). It’s a short read / listen, and well worth your time—but only if you’re willing to be transformed by the magic of this particular story.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

What Leonard Nimoy Believed

I remember being startled at a used bookstore somewhere outside of Fresno--not by the fact that I was actually at a used bookstore somewhere outside of Fresno, but by the fact that I had just seen what appeared to be a book of poetry by Leonard Nimoy. 


With Leonard's passing a few days ago, I was reminded of a poem that summed up what this remarkable man believed. It's a simple poem, but so was its message of belief in the good (you can also hear him read this poem here). 

I am an incurable romantic
I believe in hope, dreams and decency

          I believe in love,
          Tenderness and kindness.

I believe in mankind.

                    I believe in goodness,
                    Mercy and charity
                    I believe in a universal spirit
                    I believe in casting bread
                    Upon the waters.

                          I am awed by the snow-capped mountains
                          By the vastness of oceans.

                               I am moved by a couple
                               Of any age – holding hands
                               As they walk through city streets.

                    A living creature in pain
                    Makes me shudder with sorrow
                    A seagull’s cry fills me
                    With a sense of mystery.

                               A river or stream
                               Can move me to tears
                               A lake nestling in a valley
                               Can bring me peace.

I wish for all mankind
The sweet simple joy
That we have found together.

I know that it will be.
And we shall celebrate
We shall taste the wine
And the fruit.

Celebrate the sunset and the sunrise
               the cold and the warmth
               the sounds and the silences
               the voices of the children.

Celebrate the dreams and hopes
Which have filled the souls of
All decent men and women.

               We shall lift our glasses and toast
               With tears of joy.




Leonard--thank you for not only believing in goodness, but for creating and fostering goodness in the world (and for having one of the most meaning-laden raised eyebrows in recorded history).

Monday, 2 March 2015

Angelic and Demonic Choices

I just finished reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchet (who just passed away today) and Neil Gaiman, and as entertaining as it was, there were also moments of profound insight (I think it would be difficult to deal with heaven and hell for so long and not arrive at brilliant truths sooner or later). 


In this story, an angel and a demon are working together to prevent the apocalypse from happening, because they enjoy the world too much. These two are sometimes at odds with religious zealots from both ends of the spectrum, and as the demon considers how much control heaven and hell really have on people, he reflects: 
All you needed to become a Satanist was an effort of will...[In fact,] some of the old style Satanists tended, in fact, to be quite nice people. They mouthed the words and went through the motions, just like the people they thought of as their opposite numbers, and then went home and lived lives of mild unassuming mediocrity for the rest of the week with never an unusually evil thought in their heads.

And as for the rest of it...There were people who called themselves Satanists who made [the demon] squirm. It wasn't just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They'd come up with some stomach churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully functioning human brain could conceive, then shout "The Devil Made Me Do It" and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn't have to.

That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in [the demon’s] opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.
I really like this idea of the human mind’s creative potential—not only for terrorizing evil, but also for beatific good. This point is affirmed elsewhere:
It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.
There you have it—the sort of world we live in depends on people like you and me, and what we choose to do with the building blocks of our life. Will we build dungeons and fortresses, or will we build nurseries and cathedrals?

The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell by William Blake (1808)
Only heaven (and probably hell, too) knows.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien on Being Better Together

This morning I was reading from The Silmarillion, where Tolkien describes the history of the universe he created that lies behind the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The creation story here is magnificent (and I’m sure I’ll write something else about that), but today I’d like to highlight one particularly beautiful passage where Tolkien describes what it means to be in a meaningful relationship.

Manwë and Varda, borrowed from here and here

Following the story of creation, we read a description of the divine beings the “god” of this universe, Ilúvatar, brought forth and which inhabit the world. One of these divine beings, Manwë, is “dearest to Ilúvatar and understands most clearly his purposes. He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of [the world] and ruler of all that dwell therein.” The next being described is Varda, “who knows all the regions of [creation]. Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men or of Elves; for the light of Ilúvatar lives still in her face. In light is her power and her joy.” 

Separately, they are awe-inspiring. But something even greater happens when they are together: 
Manwë and Varda are seldom parted, and they remain in [the home of divine beings]. Their halls are above the everlasting snow, upon…[the] tallest of all the mountains upon Earth. When Manwë there ascends his throne and looks forth, if Varda is beside him, he sees further than all other eyes, through mist, and through darkness, and over the leagues of the sea. And if Manwë is with her, Varda hears more clearly than all other ears the sound of voices that cry from east to west, from the hills and the valleys, and from the dark places that [evil] has made upon Earth. 
There is something magical that happens when these two are in each other’s presence. They do not lose their identity by living together; rather, their closeness enhances their individuality as they can see further and hear more than was possible without the other. 

On Valentine’s Day, this seems especially relevant. I’ve always felt this way about my beloved sweetheart. It’s difficult to explain, but I’m a better me when I’m around her, which is why I want to be around her so much. My senses are heightened around her—I can see more clearly what is truly beautiful, and I can hear more perceptively what is truly meaningful in the world. And in doing so, I sense how to become something brighter than I was beforesomething more uniquely “me.” But it’s only when I’m with her that I can become the “me” that I should be.

"The Kiss" by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Tolkien manages to depict this paradox of beautiful individuality amplified by unity in these brief sentences, and reading this helped me to better recognize and appreciate the miraculous transformation that can occur when we love and are loved by another.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Into the Woods and Why Fairy Tales Still Matter

Let me first say that I think Into the Woods is an important story that illustrates an incredibly important principle. However, if audience members take this principle the wrong way, their lives will be impoverished. The ideas expressed therein are that potent.



Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s play provides a necessary critique of how we react to and appropriate fairy tales--it does this by giving us exactly what we expect from fairy tales in the first act, only to deconstruct those ideas in the second act. Here are just two of the various storylines: 
  • A barren couple is given a child; the wife then commits adultery 
  • A pure-hearted girl wishes for a Prince; the Prince turns out to be insubstantial and unfaithful 
When I first saw this play over a decade ago, I really didn't like it - I thought the underlying message was nihilistic and that it denied the existence of those positive ideals portrayed in fairy tales. In other words, fairytales are for the naive and simple-minded. After seeing the recent movie adaptation, however, I've changed my mind.

Apparition in the Woods by Moritz von Schwind (1858)

Over the past several months, I've become fascinated (bordering on obsessed) with fairy tales and their ability to explore truths in ways that other mediums cannot. In other words, I now believe in fairy tales. Given my previous perception of Into the Woods and my newfound love for fairy tales, you might expect that my reaction this time around would be even more violent. But it wasn't. I don't see Into the Woods as a piece of anti-fairy tale propaganda, like I did before. Now, I see it as a much-needed corrective to our expectations of how the truths of fairy tales translate into our own lives.

It's easy to see the pure ideals set forth in fairy tales as describing how our lives ought to be (or the best we have to hope for)--barren couples ought to be blessed with children, and pure-hearted girls ought to marry a handsome Prince who is heir to a kingdom. Believing these sorts of things about fairy tales is harmful, and it is this particular principle that Into the Woods confronts through its story.

Into the Woods introduces a necessary variable into the arithmetic of life as it is: messiness. Fairy tales provide a picture (a snapshot, really) of an ideal, leaving the prologue and the epilogue to that story untold. This is a very real limitation of fairy tales, and Into the Woods highlights this point by showing how classic fairy tales would play out after the story’s traditional ending. It shows us that "happily ever afters" are quite provisional. 


Because of the limitations of fairytales, the final song exhorts the audience to be careful of the stories it tells to children (lest they expect these stories to be exact maps of how their lives should proceed). Indeed, this is wise counsel, as long as it is equally applied to its own story. If all we see in Into the Woods is a deconstruction of fairy tales and their irrelevance for "modern," "real" life, I think we miss a much larger point. Barren couples are given children that make their lives more complete, pure-hearted girls do find Princes (though not quite heirs of a kingdom), and some of the most fantastic wishes really do come true (just see what this child’s wish to become Batman for a day did to the entire city of San Francisco).

I think that the larger, more important point is that every story is an incomplete picture of the reality's richness, which is why we need both Into the Woods and classic fairy tales. Fairy tales should be a vital part of the network of stories we entertain that help us make sense of reality and that help us find meaning in life. Fairy tales can help us to gain a sense of wonder for the world around us and can make us more aware of the truly good things and people that surround us. But, as Into the Woods reminds us, we shouldn't expect everything around us to be wonderful or everyone around us to always be good and do good to us.


Real life is an alloy of the ideal and the real, good and bad, hopes and disappointments. This is why we need to feed our imaginations with a healthy diet of stories across this entire spectrum. Into the Woods reminds us of this vital truth. 


Good Art: What it is and How to Share it

I’ve written before about the power of stories and how they’ve held me. I’ve also written about the stories we call “myths”and their beauties. Now I’d like to start exploring specific stories and the ways those stories have changed me. But I also have in mind something larger, and for that, I’ll really like some help.


This direction is, in part, inspired by an interview I saw with Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite storytellers). In response to Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech and its development into the book Make Good Art, the interviewer asked him a really good question: 

What is great art?

Here is Neil Gaiman’s response:
Great art for me is anything that provokes a deep emotional reaction at the time that you hear it and then you can’t get [it] out of your head… whether it’s a painting or a piece of music or a book…With a book it’s that moment where you put it down and you go…,“I’m not quite the same person that I was before I read that book; I’m not the same person that I was before I saw this painting.” University of the Arts 2013 interview
I would like to use this as the guiding principle for the stories and other art that I share here, as well as the stories and art that I would like you to share with me and everyone else in the world. This will be a safe place for people to share stories (in any medium) that have deeply moved them and have positively changed the way that they see and experience the world. And in the future, I would also like this to become a place where storytellers and other artists will feel comfortable sharing those of their creations that have changed them.

The Last Unicorn by Su Blackwell (2012)

With this storehouse of tales and the lessons we’ve distilled from them, my hope is that “each reader will undoubtedly find his or her favorites: be they tales that edify or perplex, astonish or delight, be they myths that stick in the craw, force one to reconsider, or make the heart melt. For there [will be] as many gates in [the following posts] as there are stories (and some would say, as there are readers)” (from the preface to Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism)

To get us started, here’s a piece I just wrote about Into the Woods and why fairy tales still matter.

Now, if you have experienced good art that has changed you and would be willing to share a bit of that art with others, please e-mail me at seeinglessons@gmail.com.

Happy story-sharing…