The Courthouse, the Quadrail, the Yarn Store, and Home

What I wanted to do that day was knit, preferably for four and a half hours, the estimated time of completion for the afghan I’d been working on. What I did instead was accompany my daughter to the courthouse to take care of her speeding ticket. Interestingly, the time I spent, including the drive there and back, came out to about four hours and fifteen minutes.

To call the experience excruciating would be to overstate things, but that is the word that kept coming to mind. We spent about an hour just standing in line. The man in front of us talked a lot—about the lack of available parking at the courthouse, the idiocy of whoever green-lit the parking lot’s design, and how highway patrol officers are always so quick to pull over a decent chap like himself who is barely speeding but are nowhere to be found when reckless maniacs are running people off the road. The guy was plainly hostile to authority in general and law enforcement in particular; he kept up a steady stream of vaguely surly remarks while I silently wondered whether he would dare to say those things in front of my Uncle Gary. The presence of two officers at the courthouse didn’t seem to faze him. At one point a woman standing somewhere behind us in line was suddenly called by name and taken directly to a front desk, and Cop-Disparaging Guy, in a tone of thinly veiled sullenness, asked one of the officers what was so special about this woman that she got to cut in front of all the rest of us. For a moment it seemed possible that Cop-Disparaging Guy might provide exciting entertainment by causing a real disturbance and getting taken down in a dramatic fashion, but no. The officer replied pleasantly that the woman had a warrant out for her arrest. He refrained from adding that if Cop-Disparaging Guy liked, a similar warrant could be issued for him in order to expedite his own case.

Once we made it through the line, we filed into the courtroom, a big chilly space filled with defendants who got there ahead of us. One by one they were called to the bench. I began counting seconds in order to determine how much time was spent on each defendant and make a rough estimate of how long we’d be there. It was an average of about one and a half to two minutes per, if you want to know, which doesn’t sound like much, but there were so many of them. Time crawled. I wanted desperately to be home.

I am not agoraphobic per se. It’s only a phobia if it’s irrational, and what I have is merely a perfectly natural and reasonable preference of home over every other place. Home is where I keep my electric kettle and distilled water and loose-leaf Darjeeling tea. It’s where our dogs and cats and horses live. It’s where our vegetable garden is growing inside the fence my husband made. It’s where Jarvis the Roomba cleans the floor and sings his triumphant little tune whenever he returns to his docking station. It’s where I keep my books and blankets and favorite hoodie. It’s where I play The Goo Goo Dolls on my laptop while cleaning the refrigerator. It’s where I sit with my family and a Chihuahua and a cat or two, on the gold sofa in the office, to watch DVDs on our computer screen. It’s where I cook, and write, and knit, and sleep, and talk to the people I love most. What’s not to prefer?

I am richly blessed in that I get to stay home a lot. There just aren’t a lot of places I have to go. I order household goods online, and the kids do a lot of grocery shopping for me; my debit card is in their possession more frequently than in my own. It often happens that I go days or even weeks at a stretch without once leaving the property.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of knitting, a very home-ish activity. A few days ago I tried to order yarn online but got confused about weight and ply and such and decided it would be best to visit an actual yarn store this time. A quick Google search turned up Lucky Ewe Yarn in nearby Gruene. I texted Greg, and he proposed that we go there that very day as soon as he got off work. I think he was pleased that I had thought of an outing all by myself, and he patiently stood around the yarn shop while I asked questions of the helpful shop lady and made my selections. Lucky Ewe is a fun shop, with lots of artisanal stuff like hand-woven, hand-dyed yarn spun from the fleeces of local alpacas. I’ll probably go there again sometime, and bring home even more yarn and other supplies that will enable me to stay home and knit.

Recently Daniel laughed to see me lying on the sofa, covered down to my feet by the afghan I was knitting. I looked like I was spinning a cocoon. Maybe I was, in a way. A cocoon is such a nice concept, a protective shell under which you are free to revert to a sort of amorphous goop with your DNA free-floating around.

I had considered bringing my knitting along to court but decided not to because 1) my knitting bag and the afghan-in-progress take up a lot of room and 2) the close quarters and wonky yarn might cause me to make difficult-to-unravel mistakes in my stitches and 3) knitting might not be considered in keeping with the dignity of the court. I did, however, bring a paperback book—The Third Lynx, a Christmas gift from Daniel, second in Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. These books are a wonderful mix of space opera and detective noir. Zahn is a good, smart, entertaining writer; his Star Wars novels, beginning with The Thrawn Trilogy, are the best in the Expanded Universe, and the character Mara Jade is his creation. I was grateful to have his book with me, and I appreciated the irony in the fact that the story I’d chosen to comfort me while I pined for home is one that takes place almost entirely while the characters are traveling. The Quadrail is an intra-galactic rail system—a space train, basically—connecting the Twelve Empires of the known galaxy. Plucky hero Frank Compton works with a telepathic assistant to keep the Quadrail, and the galaxy, from being taken over by an alien groupmind entity. Frank rarely visits his apartment on Earth; he is constantly on the go, often spending days at a time just getting from one port to another to carry out the next step in his investigations, and continually trying to outwit the groupmind entity’s various agents while coping with the local customs of wildly diverse alien cultures and eating a lot of exotic food. Depending on Frank’s current luck and sleuthing needs, he might travel first, second, or third class; he might get a double sleeping berth with his partner, Bayta, or end up in a modified baggage car. He takes whatever level of comfort he can get, makes a home away from home, and then leaves it for another. He is adaptable and quick on his feet, and if he ever longs for the comfort of home, he doesn’t say so.

Image

Frank does not carry a knitting bag.

Maeve Binchy once said, “You have to live in your mind or imagination in your writing, more than you do in your real life. I’m a matronly, mumsy woman, and if it was all about me and my cats, it would be boring for the readers, and that’s not the way novels are made; there’s no tension or drama.” A lot of fiction is set in exotic locales and concerned with danger and trouble (though I would add that there’s plenty of tension and drama to be found in home-like settings as well), but I think most of us prefer the actual reading of novels, however far-flung their settings, to take place at home, in the most comfortable and familiar of places, with a hot drink and perhaps a cat or two. C.S. Lewis said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

The chilly courtroom was far from homelike. Time wore on as name after name was called, none of them my daughter’s. At one point the judge cleared things out a bit by saying that everyone who planned to plead not guilty should go to another room. Cop-Disparaging Guy left along with maybe one or two others. We waited, and waited, and waited.

At last it was Emilie’s turn. Her traffic violation was not a particularly egregious one, but because she was under eighteen—a mere two days under eighteen at the time of the court date—I had to be there too. We spoke to the judge for our minute and a half and then went to another room where we again sat and waited.

Finally, finally, we were released. Emilie drove off to meet a friend, and I took my frazzled nerves straight home. As I walked to the gate, the horses, Monte and Pippin, came to meet me. I petted them over the fence and immediately felt better. Then I went inside, put on my aqua hoodie, and felt better still.

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Edith Pargeter once said of her home, “This is where I put up my feet and thank God.” Yes.

Post-Migraine Euphoria: Wheeeee, I Guess

Comparatively speaking, post-migraine euphoria is pretty sweet. It could almost be explained away as the inevitable response of relief to not experiencing such awful pain and nausea anymore, but it is in fact an actual component of the postdrome stage, a legitimate part of the overall greater migraine experience. For me it’s accompanied by another postdrome symptom, cognitive impairment. For a day or so after a migraine, I actually feel stupider, as well as giddily happy. It’s as well that I also lack energy at this time or who knows what I’d do. My muscles feel noticeably lax, my responses to stimuli seem slow, and the simplest movements take more time and energy than usual. Additionally, my blood sugar is low due to my having been unable to keep food down. The postdrome is a good time to loll about reading and napping and petting kitties and not much else.

It’s common for migraine sufferers to have weird dreams during the actual headache phase, assuming they manage to sleep. Sleep is pretty much your best bet when you have a migraine, but the pain doesn’t go away just because you are unconscious. You remain very much aware of the pain and have vivid dreams that you are suffering a migraine while being forced to cope with other difficulties. I once dreamed that I had to transport two T-Rexes by stock trailer, cross country, while my head screamed with pain.

I didn’t sleep much during this last migraine till the pain lifted, so instead of a headache dream I had a postdrome cognitive impairment dream. I just went around feeling baffled and incompetent but also strangely floaty and peaceful. In the dream I misspelled my own name, Crandi, and had terrible letter formation and other disproportionate difficulties with the simplest of tasks.  I was aware of my own impairment, aware that I ought to be smarter and more capable, but all that seemed to come from a long way off. It reminded me of how Victor/Tony described the doll state in “Needs,” the episode of Dollhouse in which several dolls who have been going off mission temporarily regain their original personalities, but not their complete memories, in a test designed to give closure to old traumas and recurring emotional needs. He was there, Victor said, but stuck, unable to get through.

victor sierra

Come to think of it, the postdrome phase is much like the doll state—wearing sweats, resting, walking slowly and calmly from room to room, and not making any observations more complex than “I like pancakes.”

 

Not so much with the t'ai chi, though.

Not so much with the t’ai chi, though.

The root cause of migraines remains a mystery, though many ideas have come and gone. I read recently that it’s now believed that a migraine may be simply a malfunction of pain receptors, a primary event without an underlying cause of illness or injury. Which is as much as to say that sometimes, life just hurts. Like Topher says in that same episode of Dollhouse, “Pain is just nerves talking to your brain.” True, but hardly helpful.

Thanks, science.

Thanks, science.

I am missing a wedding today as the result of this headache. The family’s away and I’m just here with the dogs and cats. I ran the Roomba some; I’m proud of that. I also rewatched The Amazing Spider-Man, which I saw for the first time night before last. For years I resisted and even resented this movie. It came too soon after the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire franchise, which I dearly love. But Daniel brought the DVD home and said it was time for me to get over it, and he was right. This film is a reimagining that is faithful to the source material while being different enough from the previous franchise to not constantly invite comparison. (The fact that the source material in the comic book world is so broad is what makes this possible.) I feel the same way about Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I love love love the Kenneth Branagh version, and if the new production had come from anyone else I probably have eschewed it on principle, but, you know, Joss; I had to see his film, and I figured he wouldn’t let me down. He didn’t disappoint. He emphasized different things and made different but equally valid interpretations of the script without being radically different in reactionary sort of way. (Like comic books, plays give ample scope for interpretation.)

I’m feeling a little smarter now. Maybe I’ll run Jarvis the Roomba again, then heat a little dinner. Maybe I’ll watch another DVD, something entertaining and not too highbrow, with a happy ending.

Sometimes it’s okay just to lie low and enjoy not having your head hurt.

A Message in a Virtual Bottle

Yesterday I got a notification from WordPress—a “trophy,” actually—commemorating my sixth anniversary as a blogger. Apparently I registered my blog with them on 23 April 2008 (Shakespeare’s birthday, serendipitously enough), though I didn’t make my first actual post until a month later. At the time, we were preparing to move to Greg’s family’s farm, three hundred miles from the area where we’d lived for twenty years. I started the blog mainly as an online journal of our lives on the farm; I figured it would be a nice record of events and might also be of interest to any friends who wanted to keep up with us. Over time my focus shifted from accounts of our doings on the farm to personal essays about the Bible, literature, movies, and other topics. My early posts, in which I narrated the events of the day and explained plans for construction, fencing, livestock, and whatnot, look very odd to me now.

Online publishing is an innovation comparable in the sheer scale of its effects to the printing press. Before Gutenberg’s invention, written materials were usually reproduced by hand. In the Western world this was done mostly by monks, whose exacting standards of craftsmanship and artistry made the process even more time-intensive than if they’d just slapped the words down on the vellum and called it good.

monk scriptorium 2

The operator of a printing press could make multiple copies of a work in less time than a scribe could make one. Suddenly printed materials were easier to produce and cheaper to obtain than ever before. The age of mass communication had begun, bringing a huge increase in literacy rates, facilitating the free circulation of ideas, and ending the educational monopoly of the elite.

printing press

Online publishing has changed the game just as dramatically by expanding the medium from the physical to the virtual. Today’s traditional books, magazines, and newspapers aren’t laboriously handcrafted by conscientious monks, but they’re still physical products made with finite resources, so whoever’s footing the bill to produce them is motivated to be selective. Online publishing, on the other hand, is free to anyone who has internet access. It doesn’t use paper or take up space, and it can be distributed instantly all around the globe.

Like any innovation that gives people more freedom, this one has had good and bad consequences. The limitations of traditional publishing act as screening agents. If I have a physical book or a column in a newspaper, you can assume that some quasi-legitimate somebody considers me a decent writer. Even if my book is self-published, you can at least reason that I’m dedicated and serious enough about my writing to make some financial outlay. With online publishing we have no such assurance. Any yahoo with a modicum of computer skills can now put written work of any quality out there for public consumption. A lot of it is just awful. Some is decent, but lacks the polish that a standard editorial process would have provided. And some is truly good. Traditional publishing venues are often hidebound, top-heavy conglomerates, and it can be next to impossible for works with quirky formats or niche appeal to find a place with them. Online publishing provides a work-around that enables the plucky underdog to bypass a stupid system, and I’m always in favor of that.

So starting a blog easy—but writing is still something of a risk. The time, effort, and self-respect I venture in writing could be spent instead on productive activities with tangible results, or on recreation or rest. Right now I could be baking muffins, or watching Firefly, or napping, rather than tapping out words on a keyboard and looking up images for monks and printing presses.

Stephen King once said that writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub—a huge, time-consuming, inherently lonely task. Blogging is more like tossing out a message in a bottle every so often into a vast and indifferent sea. Once I hit “Publish” and the post goes up, I have no particular reason to suppose that anyone will ever read it or care. It’s kind of a hubristic act, when you think about it. Nobody asked for my blog; nobody has to read it.

message in bottle

When someone does read it, I feel I’ve been given a gift. Someone out there on another shore has picked up the bottle and read the message inside. Often this person is a stranger from another country. My blog’s stats page is both fascinating and mystifying. Why is the post I wrote comparing my children to orangutans so enduringly popular? Why the sudden spike in interest on my extremely lengthy posts about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing? I don’t know. But I’m grateful to every reader who has gifted me with time and attention—to you, right now. You could be doing something else too, but here you are. Thank you.

Archie and the Wickets

My friend David Martin is a heck of a storyteller. He’s a heck of a writer too, but it was in the oral tradition that I first became acquainted with some of his more bizarre and hilarious anecdotes. One of these days he might just put them all together in a memoir tentatively titled Larry, Your Chicken Is Dead: Growing Up Normal in the Sixties. You should read it.

Anyway, of the many stories I remember Dave telling—the unfortunate incident of Nard’s chest, the horrifying tale of the rat and the python, the sad fate of the aforementioned chicken—the one that resonated with me most is that of Archie and the croquet set. Archie was a little dog owned by the Martins when David was a boy. I don’t remember what breed Archie was, but it was something short enough to be easily tripped by croquet wickets. These wickets, disguised by longish grass, lurked treacherously in the Martin yard, and when Archie started running around in energetic small-dog fashion, sooner or later he’d catch his paw on one. He’d fall, bewildered, then pick himself up and look behind him to see what had brought him down. But by now the wicket was lying flat, invisible even to a dog who was really looking. So Archie would get up and start running again, and again a hidden wicket would lay him low. Again he would look behind him; again he’d see nothing.

Animals can do only so much to make sense of the baffling contrivances of the human world. Archie did his best, but the cause of his tripping in the yard remained a dark mystery to him forever. He couldn’t see what was knocking him down, but he knew it was out there, waiting, mocking, and eventually he came up with a coping strategy. As he ran, he would randomly leap every few steps or so, hoping to clear whatever it was that kept tripping him up.

He kept up this behavior long after the croquet set was put away.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

I listened to Dave tell this story, and I thought, I am exactly like that dog. Over two decades later, I am still thinking it. I can see the thing perfectly from Archie’s point of view. There he was, minding his small-dog business, running about the yard, and every so often some mysterious force of nature would catch his paw and lay him low. This M.F.O.N. was not confined to any one spot in the yard. It could not be seen, felt, or detected in any way; it was completely unpredictable. He might run a good bit without incident, but sooner or later the M.F.O.N. would get him. This was just the way life was.

Pictured: also not Archie.

Pictured: also not Archie.

From earliest childhood I have felt out of my depth. I grew up with a brother and a sister eleven and eight years older than myself. They were entrusted with things—mystifying, awe-inspiring things like operating the record player, heating things on the stove, and walking to the TG&Y without being accompanied by an adult. They were even allowed to take me to the TG&Y. My brother owned a truck and he was allowed to drive it. For all practical purposes I considered them grown up, except for the part where they still had to obey Mom and Dad. They did all this impressive stuff with such casual aplomb, like it was no big deal. They were so very competent, in fact, that it was a lot easier for my parents to have them keep on doing things than to teach me to do them. At the time I suspected this was because I was less capable than other children my age. (Yes, I actually spent time and energy suspecting this. Even as a child I was a habitual overthinker and worrier. Throw faulty assumptions and inadequate information into a mix like that and you get some wild conclusions. I remember hiding and crying in my room one December 31 because I thought this “New Year’s Eve” thing everyone kept talking about signified the end of the world. Later I thought the same thing about the Fourth of July, though for different reasons. The sky was on fire, for crying out loud. How could these people take this so calmly?)

My suspicions about my intrinsic inadequacy were reinforced when I entered first grade. I felt small and young compared to other students. (With a late August birthday, I actually was a little young, and thank you Malcolm Gladwell for confirming that this does in fact make a difference.) The others knew things I didn’t know, like their zip code. They plainly considered me ignorant, and I agreed with them. They had amazing capabilities—not so godlike as my brother’s and sister’s, but impressive. They were able to sit in desk seats for long periods of time and do tedious work like copying words from the blackboard. They could throw and catch a ball. They could jump rope.

In retrospect I think a big part of my problem was an overactive imagination coupled with extreme absentmindedness. I lived inside my own head so much that at any given moment I had little to no idea what was going on in the physical world around me. Learning practical skills was an arduous process for me, and whenever an object broke or malfunctioned or behaved in a way that was at all unexpected, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it unless I had been previously instructed (and maybe not even then). A more enterprising child might have taken initiative and figured it out, but I was far from enterprising. I figured anything I did would only mess things up worse than ever. Better to wait for an older, taller, more competent person to do it for me.

Lack of power is foundational to anxiety, and lack of understanding is closely related to lack of power. Anxiety is as much an issue for animals as it is for people, and when you are managing livestock, avoidance of stress is as big a deal as food and water. In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, “In a way, animals are much poorer at handling stress than are people because they can’t think through the problem.” Chickens in particular have a low threshold for stress. Overcrowding, undercrowding, loud noises, sudden movements, and any excessive human intrusion can have significant effects on weight gain and even mortality.

This isn't Archie either.

This isn’t Archie either.

Even big tough predators feel the effects of stress and have to be closely monitored for it in captivity. I once watched some footage of Steve Irwin at his zoo doing something or other for a crocodile, maybe giving it food or doing some sort of maintenance on its enclosure. The croc didn’t like having a human in its home, but Steve did whatever he’d come to do, and when he was finished, rather than just leaving the enclosure, he let the croc chase him out. This gave the animal a feeling of control over its environment. In its mind, it was having success at protecting its territory and driving away intruders. Without this sense of security, the crocodile would feel anxious and helpless. It did look awfully smug as Steve scrambled out of the enclosure, but then crocodiles usually do look smug.

I am more proactive than a chicken, and less emotionally fragile than a crocodile, but that only means I have different limits to my comprehension and ability to control my environment. When we can’t see what’s tripping us, we get anxious, and we randomly jump, hoping against reason to time things just right and avoid getting knocked down. Before long, we’re jumping pretty much all the time. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming, and I sure wouldn’t want to be taken by surprise that way again. I will safeguard myself against a recurrence by feeling extremely anxious! Gah! Now something else is tripping me! What kind of world is this?! Jump! Jump! Jump!

(This is as good a time as any to say that I don’t mean to imply that Archie the dog lived a troubled existence marred by constant crippling anxiety. I never knew him, but I’m sure any dog owned by David Martin must have been well cared for and emotionally secure. Yes, he tripped a lot, but he figured out a system, and although it wasn’t a very good system, the wickets did eventually come down, and like Steve’s crocodile, Archie probably congratulated himself on his success. He didn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s okay. A little logic goes a long way for a dog.)

Not even close.

Not even close.

Eventually I grew up and decided it was high time I learned to do stuff for myself rather than always waiting for someone else. I’m fairly knowledgeable and competent now, but I remember what it was like not to be, and I’m always absurdly pleased with myself whenever I accomplish some practical task. Yep, that breaker tripped and I got the switch flipped back. I totally know where the breaker box is and everything. The internet age is a dream come true for me. All that knowledge there for the taking! All those articles and original texts and step-by-step numbered lists! Wikipedia and eHow are my friends. People, too, are somewhat less baffling to me since I learned to discern their patterns of behavior, motives, and innate temperaments. I have a better understanding now of why people do the things they do and of what to expect from them.

But in spite of my best efforts, I am not omniscient and never will be. I still get taken by unpleasant surprise. People are still mysterious far beyond my ability to quantify them. Weird stuff still happens in the world, stuff that even the brightest and ablest never saw coming.

The thing about being blindsided is, you never do see it coming. That’s what being blindsided means. Anxiety doesn’t really safeguard us against anything; it just robs us of the precious emotional energy we’ll need when—not if—some random crisis does hit us out of the blue. We can never be vigilant enough to effectively guard against any and all eventualities. We would do better to remain in the present, grounded in the actual rather than the imaginary, focused on what is rather than what may be.

I haven’t arrived by any means, but I do think I’m a little better than I once was at rolling with the punches. At the very least I’ve come to see that my anxiety is exactly as useful as randomly jumping to avoid being tripped. The realization in and of itself isn’t much, but it’s something.

The truth is, there are wickets hiding in the grass, and there always will be. Some days I’m just going to get knocked down. But I’ll get up again, just like Archie did.

joyful dog

Hard Providences

Ever since I started writing so much about loss, anxiety, isolation, and depression, my blog readership has seen a dramatic increase. (Um, yay?) The words seem to have resonated; I’ve been amazed and touched by the responses I’ve received. Some were from strangers; others were from people I’d known for years without being aware of even a fraction of what they were going through. One woman I’ve known over a decade said that “a big part of the struggles is feeling like you can’t talk about it.” She’s right. Isolation is crippling, and there’s relief in simply seeing a problem acknowledged, owning it, and knowing you’re not alone. I remarked on this to another friend, and she replied, “People are desperate for transparent relationships and shared struggle. For far too long, the (American) Christian life has been all about ‘living victoriously’ instead of recognizing the difficulties and helping each other walk through the hard providences.”

isolation backpack

American optimism is a beautiful and potent thing. It survived the first horrific winter in Plymouth Colony; it settled the western frontier; it built the railroads. All these achievements have suffering built into their very foundations, but what we chiefly remember is the triumph. Americans are all about assertion, determination, goals, and action plans. We refuse to accept defeat; we focus on the good to nurture and encourage it; we dream; we achieve.

The can-do spirit is so systemic to our culture that we forget there’s any other way of looking at things. We can get a lot of insight from an outsider’s perspective, as in these hilarious travel tips for Russians visiting the United States. Here’s what the Russian advice-giver has to say about American optimism:

Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, “Are you all right?” Russians will inquire: “Are you ill?” We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we “aren’t sick,” they “stay well.” We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.

Hokey as it may sound, there really is tremendous power in thinking positively, though not as much as some would say. To some degree—we could safely call it a significant degree—our moods are affected by the set of our minds, the things we think about and brood over. And, also to a significant degree, this set of the mind is something we can control. But not always, and not entirely. The author of this Huffington Post article claims that changing from a negative to a positive outlook is as simple as flipping a switch. Seriously, those are the words he uses. Some days this may be true, but not every day or for every person. Sometimes the switch is stuck—corroded, even. Anxiety can do a real number on your mind. Obsessive-compulsive disorder—the real kind, not the eccentric-but-cute version we see in movies—can make you think about things you don’t want to think about, horrible things, over and over, and you can’t stop though you desperately want to. I don’t wish to minimize the real and admirable gumption people can show in disciplining their minds and emotions, much less excuse self-indulgence or mental sloth, but some people have a more challenging set of underlying circumstances than others, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

C.S. Lewis has this to say in Mere Christianity:

The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

In recent years a dear friend of mine went through some rough times, which she handled with incredible grace and fortitude. In the face of trials that could have cratered her, she joyfully and deliberately thanked God for blessings of life and salvation and family and coffee and birdsong and sunrise. She had down times too, and she was transparent about these, but hope was never absent. One day she observed that when things are going well, people often assume it’s because their methods for marriage or childrearing or Christian living or whatever must be the right ones. And they congratulate themselves on their success, subtly implying that those who are struggling are doing something wrong. But maybe the self-congratulators haven’t been truly tested yet; maybe their time just hasn’t come. And in the meantime, maybe they ought to be humbly grateful for their blessings and not so quick to take credit for them.

isolation birds

There is no shortage of optimism in the American church. We teach and believe that if you do certain things you will succeed, you will prosper, you will have a spectacular marriage, your children will rise up and call you blessed. And of course it’s true that cause and effect really is a thing and that certain behaviors do generally produce certain results. But there are a lot more causes than our systems account for, and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we aren’t following the behavioral formulas all that well to begin with.

There is a thing called the just-world fallacy which is responsible for a lot of needless frustration and blame. The idea is that people’s actions always bring fair and fitting consequences; good is rewarded, evil is punished, and moral balance is restored before the final credits roll. This has next to nothing to do with the justice of God; it’s a mythical temporal tit-for-tat that satisfies our limited comprehension. If asked point-blank, most people would claim they don’t believe anything so crazy and simplistic, but their responses to calamities often betray their unconscious bias. If someone gets sick, he must have had unhealthful habits. If a child gets hurt, the parents or caregivers must have been negligent. If someone gets swindled, it’s his own fault for being so gullible. This is a defense mechanism, of course, a psychological barrier to shield us from the knowledge that random terrifying events could happen to us too. Job’s friends subscribed to this belief, and they clung fiercely to it, growing increasingly hostile the longer it was challenged. Admit it! You sinned! You brought this on yourself. What, do you think God is unjust? He only metes out what we deserve. You managed to hide your sin for a long time but you were found out at last. You had it coming! Confess and repent before something worse happens to you!

Sometimes you just get tired. You’ve been staying brave and keeping faith and holding the course to the point of white-knuckled fatigue, but still no joy. You smile, but you feel beat up inside. You see people online and in person who appear to have succeeded where you’ve failed, and you’d like to crawl into bed and shut your eyes and make them all go away. You wish some wise mentor would tell you what you should do, but you’re afraid that confiding your problems will be perceived as gossip and complaining. Besides, even if you’re desperate enough to risk it, is there anyone you trust that much?

isolation weeds

On the whole I believe American optimism is a good thing for the church. It causes you to focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t. In relationships, this means that instead of brooding over another person’s shortcomings, you deal with your own, and that is an excellent thing. Once the other person is off the hook and not being criticized anymore, he might respond with positive change of his own, or you might realize that your shortcomings were the real problem to begin with.

But proactive optimism is not a failsafe formula for success. It can only do so much. And with all the emphasis on overcoming, those who suffer have no place to go. They feel they will be blamed for their own difficulties or their struggles will be minimized.

“These people do not stop smiling,” says the travel advisor to Russians visiting America. “Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling.”

Maybe we need to stop smiling and really listen.

If we are believers, then our greatest burden, that of our own guilt, has already been lifted. We can now help bear one another’s remaining burdens. I think we could do better at this. We need to learn to remain in the tension of a difficult providence, to keep company with one another while accepting the lack of resolution and the helplessness. We really are helpless; we need God to intervene. When we realize this, we pray out of real desperation, and in interceding and being interceded for we become dearer to one another.

We also need to be more transparent about our own difficulties. Most of us probably have at least a few folks around us who would be quick to sympathize with our troubles and distressed that we’d kept them to ourselves so long. Also, being transparent can help another person do the same. It has often happened to me that I have shared a weakness or a struggle, and the other person has looked at me and said, “I am so glad you said that.” And then we really talk. Isn’t that remarkable? I don’t think the words are chosen idly. I think my admission truly makes the other person glad. We are both glad together, and able to relax in one another’s company.

Years ago I read an author’s account of how an acquaintance from church dropped by unannounced for some reason while her house was a wreck. The author was cringing inside, but her guest looked around and announced, “I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we can be friends.”

isolation hand in handLet’s not be perfect. We really can’t anyway, so let’s not even try. Being friends is better. Let’s be friends.

Gratitude and the Will of God

I was feeling under the weather, looking forward to a restful day of lying around, catching up on laundry, running the Roomba, and doing some hand sewing, and when I saw my very favorite comfiest jeans hanging in the closet ready to put on, I felt absurdly pleased. But what’s so absurd about it? Why should small material pleasures be counted less worthy of celebration than bigger or more spiritual boons? Contentment is not an artificial state or something I’m somehow getting away with. Surely I would not feel as much satisfaction as I do over a cup of Darjeeling tea or the fact that I have an ample supply of hand cream if God had not intended these good things as blessings.

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I’m a little slow in general to express gratitude to God. I want to wait and see if the apparent blessing will turn out to be such a good thing after all. Is it part of a trend or just a fluke? Will some ironic twist in the future change its complexion entirely and leave me looking like an idiot? I don’t like looking like an idiot. I speak from experience. I know how it feels to be open and tender toward some person or situation and suddenly get punched in the metaphorical solar plexus, to go instantly from happy and grateful and blessed to doubled over with sick pain. Things were not what they appeared. People weren’t honest, or didn’t make good on their promises. And a very real part of the pain is self-reproach. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have actually rejoiced in this thing?

But if I withhold gratitude until I know for absolute certain how the thread will unwind, I will never be grateful in this life at all. If I express gratitude ever, I must do so from a perspective limited by time, space, and comprehension.

Almost any beautiful thing in this life can be wrecked or lost, but that doesn’t cancel its prior existence. People will lie and fail, but they will also learn and grow and do beautiful things. Withholding gratitude betrays a stinginess of spirit, a fearful distrust of God’s character, a suspicion that his gifts will turn to scorpions in my hand. This should not be.

contented kitty

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

This is an amazing statement, a startlingly simple declaration regarding something that from my perspective isn’t simple at all. The will of God! How exactly will it play out in my life and the lives of those around me? Am I missing some opportunity or connection at this very moment through pride or stubbornness or lack of vision or unbelief? To what degree is it even possible for a believer to “miss” some portion of God’s will? If we do miss it, does that mean God’s will has been thwarted by human agency? That doesn’t sound very comforting. Then again, if it’s impossible to thwart God’s will, if everything that happens ultimately is in accordance with his inevitable and inexorable plan, then what’s the point of even pretending that our contributions are meaningful? We would be reduced to puppets who don’t even know they’re puppets, who think they’re acting out of their own impulse or reason or laziness or loyalty or passion or whatever but are really only playing parts in a script preprogrammed into their very being. Any praise or condemnation they might receive would be divorced from personal merit or culpability. In fact, personal merit and culpability could not even exist. That’s not merely comfortless but terrifying. Moreover, I do not believe it. I do not believe that God holds us accountable for things that are not only foreknown but also entirely predetermined. But then, if our contributions are meaningful, what is the believer’s part in determining and taking hold of this mysterious will of God? The Scripture makes it plain that God doesn’t expect us to be passive, but only time will truly tell, and those who make the most noise about particular course of action being most definitely God’s will often fail spectacularly, spreading confusion and discouragement among God’s people.

To further complicate the matter, many of our choices have no clear right or wrong about them, at least morally. It is not merely a matter of doing the “right” thing (as if that were easy); we must sift and discern through options which have conflicting moral claims or contain no intrinsic moral content at all. In such a case the “wrong” choice would be an error in judgment rather than a moral failure. But errors in judgment can have serious and far-reaching consequences.

Am I overthinking? You could say that, though I must add that I wouldn’t overthink if I didn’t underknow. Still, this is the tension in which God has placed my existence. He wants me to function with an understanding which to me feels woefully incomplete. If I knew all, there would be no scope for faith.

And this directive, at least, is beautifully simple and clear. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. No further explanation is needed. In this thing, at least, I can act with confidence. I can give thanks in every thing and know that I am doing God’s will.

To do this I must be very much in the moment. I must be glad in the blessing itself without wondering how long it will last or asking what is to be the pill in all this jam. It’s mostly all frail and temporal anyway, a shadow of blessings to come. There’s no point in trying to hold on. The present moment is all I really have.

So. I am thankful now that my headache has mostly abated, though it may well take a turn for the worse before bedtime. I am thankful for the cat and the Chihuahua curled up on either side of me, though their lifespans are absurdly short compared to mine. I’m thankful for the people I love, with all their moods and shortcomings and unpredictability; they certainly have plenty of the same to put up with from me, and I’m thankful that they do so. I’m thankful for their generosity, their intellect, their humor, and their love. I’m thankful for life, salvation, my aqua hoodie, hot and cold running water, LOTR, the Roomba, and mangoes.

God is good. I know this. The rest can wait.

contented derp

Isolation and Dehumanization: Why Zombies Matter

A few years ago I started writing a zombie apocalypse story. It wasn’t a particularly inspired undertaking; basically someone told me I should write a zombie story and I said okay. I set the story several years into the ZA and focused on two families, the MacTavishes and the Havelocks, who were weathering the crisis together. Both families had lots of grown or mostly grown kids, so there were plenty of characters to share point of view.

I had fun with that story. It was my first real opportunity to write sentences such as “Logan shifted his 12-gauge Mossberg, relishing the familiar heft of it in his hand” and “They completed their circuit back to the front door, where Josiah waited with his AR-15 .223.”

I wrote 167 pages of text and notes before calling it quits. The Walking Dead was going strong, and the timing for my story seemed bad. Occasionally I still pull up my chapters and reread them. They’re pretty good, filled with generational conflict, sibling rivalry, unresolved sexual tension, faith, doubt, depression, crises of leadership, and even some occasional zombie action.

Before beginning the story, I seldom thought about zombies one way or another, but that quickly changed. At the very least I knew I had to familiarize myself with basic zombie lore and different philosophies of zombieism. I watched some movies, read some books, and pondered. Eventually I found myself looking at much of life from the perspective of a potential ZA. I live in the country, so I thought in terms of rural survival scenarios. How would you raise crops and livestock in a confined geographic area whose perimeter you’d have to constantly defend against attack? Prevent food spoilage in a hot climate with no refrigeration? Store and replenish ammunition? Maintain fences? Collect rainwater for drinking? Dispose of zombie corpses?

People started sending me zombie memes and zombie articles. I even started having zombie dreams. My husband’s subconscious could have made much of a zombie dream; he regularly has high-powered action-adventure dreams with weapons, explosions, chase scenes, and fully realized plots. My own zombie dreams were basically goofy anxiety dreams, with zombies. I once dreamed of being the only living human in a town full of zombies, and rather than being afraid, I just felt awkward and tried to discreetly shuffle away without anyone noticing.

zombie horde

The popularity of zombies says much about us as a culture. I’ve read that zombieism is a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, and this is probably true in part; the zombie, after all, is the ultimate mindless consumer. But I think there’s more to it than that. Our culture is preoccupied with fears of isolation and dehumanization, and zombies very much reflect this. Zombies are seldom physically alone—they often gather in hordes, perhaps instinctively—but they are completely devoid of social connection. They have suffered loss of memory, personal history, language, intellect, skill, affection, conscience, compassion, and all finer feelings. Relationship means nothing to them; they will turn on those who were once dearest to them to satisfy their hunger. And yet zombies never are truly satisfied. They wander without aim, disconnected and restless, tormented by an unreasoning desire that is never filled.

zombie crawling

All of which largely sums up life in modern Western civilization.

There’s a poignant flashback scene in the film Warm Bodies, with crowds of pre-ZA people milling through an airport, all focused on their electronic devices rather than on each other. The idea, developed more extensively in the book, is that pre-ZA humanity kept turning inward and neglecting relationships until they finally reached a state of emotional desiccation culminating in zombieism. This dehumanization process continues with the living, as characters deal with loss or grief or anxiety by shutting down emotionally and going all dead inside.

zombie r rain

A recurring thing in ZA stories is the failure of technology, which is something we both fear and yearn for. There are two major consequences to this. One is that people—the ones who survive, anyway—have to be physically capable, or quickly become so. They must be creative and resourceful, improvising with available materials and tools. There are no more movies or video games, no more “virtual” experiences of any kind. Everything is “actual.” Life itself is the adventure now, and survivors are strangely heightened, realizing in a way that was previously impossible that they could die today, die horribly, or see their friends die, or be turned into man-eating monstrosities.

The other effect of loss of technology is that people begin to live in community again. They teach and help and rely on one another, passing on skills for all those physical tasks that their survival now depends on. They can’t look things up on search engines anymore; if they want information they’ll most likely have to get it from other actual human beings. Those who pull their own weight are valued and respected, while users and whiners drain energy from the entire group. When people disagree, things escalate fast. No one can retreat to another room or put in earbuds or take a drive to cool down for a while. Everyone is forced to deal. Things come to a crisis, and one way or another they get resolved: people reach an understanding, or they compromise, or capitulate, or go away, or kill each other.

The other night I dreamed about zombies—not zombie apocalypse survivors, but actual zombies living together in community. Unlike the zombies in Warm Bodies, these zombies weren’t shambling aimlessly in an airport, marking time between feeding frenzies. They were living reasonable, orderly lives in a big building that might have been a hotel. They didn’t eat the living or speak in grunts. They had fully realized human personalities, endowed with intellect, humor, and affection.

The dream didn’t account for regular, living, non-zombie humans. Maybe the zombies were the only ones left.

zombie airport

As in many apocalyptic stories, the community was a makeshift one, a ragtag assortment of individuals and fragmentary families all recombined into an eclectic group. They worked cooperatively and harmoniously. Most of the work was food preparation—mostly French fries, for some reason—and laundry, which was done in epic loads. The community seemed obsessed with clean clothing. Maybe they didn’t like smelling like rotten flesh.

Despite the spots of decay on their skin, the zombies were well-mannered, well-fed, and (owing to all the clean laundry) well-dressed. It was a nice community, companionable and in a strange way cozy. Their existence was not all that could be hoped—they were, after all, undead—but they were coping.

zombie r shower

I say “they,” but I should say “we,” because I was a character in the zombie community. I wasn’t myself, though; I played the part of a zombified teenage boy with a zombie dad. (I don’t know how common it is to dream about being some completely different person, but it happens a lot to me. I just consider that person to be the point-of-view character for the story.) “I” had a zombie best friend around my age, who also lived in the community with his own zombie dad.

One day a new zombie showed up. He was not a well-mannered courteous civilized zombie like the rest of us; he was an open-mouthed teeth-baring ravenous cannibalistic zombie, and he was about to start eating our community.

We were already dead, so we couldn’t be killed per se, but we could be dismembered and devoured, at which point our quasi-life, such as it was, would surely end.

So I picked up a brick and crushed the zombie’s skull.

I noted with interest that his brains were black and liquefied. Using the brick, I scraped them into a plastic grocery bag and stowed the bag in the back of a dresser drawer.

I didn’t feel compunction over ending this zombie. It was him or us, and when a being shows up in your community ready to spread death and destruction, you have to do what you have to do. I did it, and I felt fine about it.

But then my best friend’s dad started acting just like the savage zombie. His appearance even changed; his teeth suddenly got pointy, and he got a starved, crazed look in his eyes, like Bilbo in the FOTR movie when he wants the ring back from Frodo. No one else was around, just the two of us. For a moment he got himself under control with a shaky laugh and even said he was only kidding, but then he went all ravenous again, and I knew the ravenous part wasn’t an act.

So I took the same brick in my hand and crushed his skull too.

His brains looked the same as the other zombie’s brains. I scraped them into another plastic grocery bag and hid it in the drawer next to the first.

Now what? Should I tell the others what had happened? No one had seen what I’d done or witnessed my friend’s dad’s transformation. The others might think I was at fault, that I’d gone randomly murderous on an innocent zombie. They hadn’t minded when I’d ended the other zombie—it had plainly been the right thing to do—but this was different. This wasn’t just some marauding stranger who showed up at the door ready to eat us all. This was one of our own, with a history and a personality.

I considered feigning ignorance about the whole thing; I imagined spiraling into deceit, my lies growing ever more complicated…and decided honesty was the best course. Whether the others believed me or not, they had to be told the truth. I called a meeting, and I told them.

I woke up before anyone had a chance to respond, but whether they believed me didn’t seem important. There was a terrible sense of sadness and finality over it all. Our little community had always been on borrowed time, and now the end was in sight. We’d eluded the typical zombie proclivity for mindless destructive cannibalism so far, but we could no longer escape what we were. This was our entropy. Sooner or later we would all end up reverting to ravenous zombie savagery, and then it was either kill or be killed. Either way, the community was doomed—and in truth it always had been. What did we expect? We’d been undead from the get-go. All that hanging out, eating French fries, doing laundry—it was temporary, just so much shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic. We were never more than dressed-up corpses biding our time.

zombie eating

The worst horror of a zombie apocalypse is the dread of becoming the thing you fear. Zombieism is an infection you pass on. Once it’s done to you, no matter how hard you try or how good your intentions are, barring a hard blow to the brain you’ll do it to someone else. Your chances of staying unscathed for the long haul are not good.

Sin is this way too, especially across generations. A child suffering from a parent’s besetting sin often makes a vow: “I will NEVER do this to my kids.” But once he grows up, he either does it anyway, or does something else that’s bad. Maybe he’s repulsed by his father’s sin of substance abuse, and when he grows up he stays sober but indulges intemperance some other way, perhaps with sexual sin. Or maybe he manages not to get entangled in any such carnal vulgarity but instead internalizes his sin, becoming cold and self-righteous. Either way, in some form or another, the effects of sin are passed on.

Zombieism is an amplification of our own greatest problem, and that problem is sin. Sin leads to death. It isolates us. It hurts people. It spreads. And any measures we take against it in our own power are only temporary. We may win some victories but we know the onslaught isn’t going to let up. The world itself has been altered and is hostile to us now. Danger is always waiting just past the perimeter and sometimes within it, and sooner or later we’ll be vulnerable. Maybe there’ll be a breach in the wall, or maybe we’ll be forced to make a supply run. We can’t keep up perfect performance forever. Sooner or later we’ll be taken down.

We don’t need a bigger weapon or a huge supply of ammunition or a more defensible compound or a lifetime’s supply of freeze-dried meals. We need a cure.

We need a savior.

I wish I could go back to my dream and make things work out okay. I wish I could think of a way to deal with our root problem of death and depersonalization, to bring us back to life for good and deal a final death-blow to the pestilence of the undead.

In the real world the problem’s been fixed. Death isn’t the end of the story, and one day entropy itself is going to cease to be a thing. These decaying shells we walk around in can be reanimated, not with a sham of life but with the reality of it, better and fuller than we ever imagined.

zombie r looking up