Saying Goodbye (and Understanding Home)

Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology. 

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My dad, my mom, my girlfriend Elena, and I at San Martin, basically El Salvador’s version of Panera Bread Co. 

In my senior’s English Literature class we’re reading Robinson Crusoe (I needed something in our textbook that would hold their attention amidst senioritis better than old poetry they couldn’t understand–remember, English isn’t their first language). At the beginning of the story the main character is being persuaded by his father not to set out on his adventure. Let your imagination wander a little bit, and it’s a rather tearful, dramatic account. Robinson Crusoe’s brother has already died on his own adventure, and his father withholds his blessing (and God’s) if his son insists stubbornly on his journey to the sea.

Now, my experience with my parents has never been like that. They’ve always been supportive of my adventures, the path of my life (and it’s taken quite a winding way). But it’s always so difficult to say goodbye. I said goodbye last July when I moved to El Salvador. I said goodbye after visiting them at Christmas. And I just said goodbye to them last Tuesday after they were in the country for a week. My parents are beautiful people, and we are very close. It was difficult to say goodbye. I love them dearly. So this is an important lesson to adventuring.

Always remember where you came from. There’s a worn-out statement packed with meaning. Nobody is so alone in life that they would not be missed if they left. Stay in touch. Send a postcard. Love the ones you leave behind. Visit. And when your journey’s over, it’s okay for your tired feet to find their way back home. Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.

A little bit out of context, but I’ve always loved the sense of this statement from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

…a little bit of honesty

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reading at my hostel in Quito, Ecuador (2014)

Because I’ve tried to be more consistent and at least post once a week, and because I’ve spent this past week a bit sick and busy, and because frankly I just don’t have a whole lot of time today, this post is a bit of a ramble. And a bit of honesty.

Confession: I want to be a published writer. I don’t want fame or fortune or success really. I simply want the validation that I don’t absolutely suck at my passion. I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to that. I’ve sent writing in the form of poetry or fiction to publishers or agents probably about twenty times now. Nada. It can be disheartening. But I keep telling myself that this is part of the game; this is the grit and the grime, the how-much-do-you-want-this, the kick-you-in-the-nuts and start again process that all determined people must face. Is publication the great satisfaction in life? Of course not. But if we’re determined to do something and feel strongly about what we do, we have to keep at it.

So today’s post is a renewal of commitment and energy. Art was never meant for notoriety really but simply to say something that’s important to the artist and maybe, collaterally, to their audience. Thus, publication or not, it’s still important if for no other reason than that it is coming out of me. It is reflection and release.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re sweating towards, keep working. Don’t forget to lean in and love others (I guess I’m saying not to be so consumed that we miss the greatest purposes of life), but don’t stop. The world needs YOU. Unique, weird YOU. Thank YOU.

 

a little bit of love, E.E. Cummings and Damien Rice

The thing about poetry is that its power and brilliance lies in its weakness. There are only a handful of universal themes, but poetry takes that vague generality and fractures its meaning and its telling (its story) into a thousand-million little tributaries which break off from the complete thing and then eventually find themselves coming back to their source or running dry awhile away.

What can be more general than love?

Famed avante-garde American poet E.E. Cummings explores the tension of love in his poem “[love is more thicker than forget].” Love is paradoxical in nature, just beyond defining but never going away. “love is more thicker than forget,” says his opening line, forcing the attention and the absurdity while defying normal English conventions. It is “mad and moonly,” “sane and sunly.” But importantly, “it cannot die.”

Famed Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has appealed to select audiences throughout the years, namely my college roommate Jimmy. Because of Jimmy I was introduced to Damien Rice though I have still listened to very little of his work. His largely mellow tunes also (surprise, surprise) explore themes of love and relationships. On his most recent album My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014), the narrator of “Colour Me In” states his desire to “repress it [love]” and that “love let me down.” But guess what? He couldn’t escape it. To live without love is a foolish, unwinnable game. It’s what colors us in.

So read this poem, and then watch Rice’s performance. What are the connections you make? [p.s. it’s a good practice, connecting art forms and messages across mediums, genres, and times]

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Poetry: Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”

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First of all, can we just acknowledge how cool Walt Whitman looks? I mean, like the original mountaineer hipster guy. Okay good, glad you agree.

I first came across Whitman in college quite by accident. I honestly can’t remember how I found his poem “Song of the Open Road,” but it was while compiling a POI (program of oral interpretation) for my forensics team in college (think debate/speech, not CSI). It’s sad, really, that I “accidentally” stumbled upon one of America’s most famous poets. But this truth perhaps highlights how far I’ve come literarily-speaking since that time.

Whitman (1819-1892), a humanist journalist, essayist, and poet, was not always loved for his poetry. His free verse was very unconventional, and his overt liberality of human sexuality was ill-approved. Nevertheless, his legacy is one of the trademarks of American literature. His works praise humanity (i.e. “Song of Myself”) and are quintessentially American in their wild, rugged freedom. And if you aren’t very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, you may have at least come across his famous “O Captain! My Captain!” which was written about the death of Abraham Lincoln and more recently immortalized in Dead Poets Society (starring Robin Williams).

So, without further ado for all my freedom-loving, adventure-seeking, open-roadies (yes, I subtly wanted to pretend I have “roadies”), literature is something that should become a friend on your journeys if it is not already. Nothing goes better with travel than deep thoughts (think Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”). Thus, Whitman’s “Open Road” is almost like a companion guide to the adventurer. I’ll share a few lines from the rather long poem, but you should read it all for yourself. Happy adventuring!

[a few pictures from my trip to Scotland a couple years ago]

 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

 

Adventure: Reflection and Looking Ahead

 

Seven years ago today I embarked on an incredibly transformative life-adventure: backpacking through Europe by myself for 3.5 months as a freshly graduated 22 year old.

I spent time journaling and reflecting this morning. Here’s today’s entry:

January 14 [2017]:

On this day seven years ago I flew from St. Louis to Dublin. That experience ended up being one of the most transformative of my life. In some ways I can directly link to that experience as a point in which everything changed. I learned to see life differently. I grew independent. I grew quieter and more reflective. I became imaginative and wanted to see the world through experience rather than didactic moralism. I fell deeper in love with books and writing and creativity and art. I have wanted to explore the depths of knowledge and adventure. Suddenly I was dissatisfied with a normal (9-5) life. Some might say I’ve become “unhinged” ever since; I’d just say “unsettled.”

When we have experiences such as these there’s a temptation to try and re-create them. But we can’t; it does disservice to the memory and the experience. In a sense, we can’t look back in life. We can look in the mirror (self-reflection and growth), but we can’t turn around. Re-creating sublime moments is a sort of prostitution [soiling what is supposed to be pure]: we’re plucking at the divine fruit we were meant to taste once. We forget we’re in the garden of mystery where every tree bears a different fruit. Savor that which you’ve already enjoyed, remember it, cherish it, but search for new fruit.

I’m thankful for the adventure that started my adventures. Let’s keep moving forward.

Since that trip in 2010 I’ve had the incredible privilege of backpacking around Scotland (and the West Highland Way), hiking the Na Pali coastline, traveling and getting my CELTA in S. America (Ecuador and Peru), Scotland again to hike with a friend, and Italy with my family. I now live in El Salvador. I’m not rich monetarily; but I’m rich in experience. Travel itself will not fill emptiness in your life–it will not “fix” you. You can be filled in so many ways. Nevertheless, don’t settle for mundane. Keep pushing at the seams of life.

Here’s a link to my inactive blog that recounts my Europe trip in full: Go.

Finally, read it or don’t, but below is a final piece of warning/advice. Happy Saturday!

 

[Note: As I scan webpages here and there, I want to leave this warning/advice to any readers. Don’t commercialize travel. I hope that’s not what I’m doing by blogging about this. There are a zillion travel tips and organizations and resources (many of them helpful, many of them that I have used from time to time), but don’t lose the spirit of travel. It’s not an industry for some Fat Cat to get rich off of…feeding into the Western world’s dissatisfaction with life. Travel, done correctly, is painfully intimate–no one can understand your experience like you can. It is sublime. It is mysterious and soul-seeking. Stepping out, I mean really stepping out, was never meant to be a two-second affair, snapping off a bunch of photos and scampering back to safe and normal. Now, it’s okay to return to what the world might call “normal” because YOU know that you’re no longer normal, and you adjust your life accordingly. You bring that spirit of change and  new eyes back with you. I feel that I’m rambling a bit here; I don’t know how to put this into words. But I see some people’s travel posts and sites, etc. from time to time, and it seems that they are more interested in how their experiences are perceived by others rather than letting those moments be their own. Remember when Sean O’Connell in Walter Mitty explains that “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…”? Leaving aside the irony of using a major Hollywood quote to make my point, let’s take a page out of O’Connell’s book and not feel the need to prostitute our moments, OUR OWN. Let’s pursue truth and beauty and self-discovery, not gimmicky tourism-industry shenanigans. I hope this makes sense. Thanks guys!]

Everyday Adventure

{I feel like every post lately starts with an apology. Here’s my last apology but hopefully not my last post for awhile. The reality is that I was a little over-ambitious when I began my blog, not factoring in my schedule (besides being a first-year teacher I’m finishing another degree online). Once my schedule clears up a bit, my posts will become more regular again. Thanks all!}

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…the girl 😉
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Chicago with my brother and my Salvadorian brother over Christmas break.
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sunset at Costa del Sol…it’s good to be back in El Salvador

 

 

La vida es bella.

Every day we wake up to a new sunrise and a new wind, a wind gathered among the airs and the comings and goings of an entire globe, accumulating and retracting and gathering and forming and transforming–touching our small little environments along its journey. And we are invited into the tears and smiles and burdens and triumphs and tragedies of that traveling breath–the wind is a speechless whisper, ever observant, ever moving–that passes over this beautiful, ugly little planet, a mere pinprick in the sea of stars and galaxies and universes.

Estoy feliz.

I am learning about contentment. For years I have been learning this lesson, and I will be its student until I die. St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that he had learned the secret of being content. That is a great, slippery secret. I have bounced around a lot. The temptation for adventurers and wanderers and travelers is to brag of their experiences… I know that temptation. The truth is, every new opportunity comes with tears. Every new opportunity brings with it the chance to be selfish and to make it all about ME. And every new opportunity punches me in the face, reminding me just how fragile I am and what the priorities of life are. Love God and love people–Jesus summarized in a few words what takes a lifetime to learn and fail and learn some more. I am learning to adapt. I am learning about contentment.

La vida es bella.

 

 

 

Faustus Makes a Deal with…Will Ferrell?

This week in my online Renaissance class we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s famous play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In the play Faustus makes a deal with the devil in exchange for a life of decadence for twenty-four years on earth. In addition to various other tasks, we were asked to analyze the continued effects of Marlowe’s narrative on contemporary culture. I chose SNL’s “The Devil Can’t Write a Love Song” featuring Garth Brooks as Milo, an uninspired musician willing to sell his soul for a hit song to Lucifer, aka Will Ferrell. Please enjoy!

El Salvador: Birthdays

This past weekend was my birthday. I’m really close with my family, so it’s not always easy to be away from them during celebrations. However, living abroad has the unique advantage of celebrating in new ways.

First, my school department took me to El Zócalo, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in El Salvador. I was donned with a sweet sombrero and cape as the waiters sang and brought me flan.

Second, three of my classes on Friday threw me a little party: cake, ice cream, soda, balloons, silly string, even a picture of me on the dry-erase board.

And I got a cake from my school department!

Also, I learned about a fun little tradition: “Mordida! Mordida! Mordida!” How it works is… well, if you don’t know, I’ll just let you experience that one for yourself.

Lastly, my other family came to my house Friday night, and we enjoyed homemade tacos, fun, and games.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday. So many people sang for me, brought me food, cooked me food, gave me gifts, and warmly wished me a “Feliz Cumpleaños.” Gracias a todos! Wonderful country. Wonderful people.

Poetry Wednesday: “The Story-Teller”

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Mark Van Doren (writing.upenn.edu)

Mark Van Doren was a poet, critic, and professor born in Hope, Illinois (a couple hour drive from where I grew up). Educated at the University of Illinois and later Columbia University (where he would later become professor), he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1940. Highly influential, I first came across Van Doren’s name while reading the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (still one of the most moving works I’ve ever read).  As I post poetry on Wednesdays I am often learning about the poets alongside my blog readers. I can say, Mark Van Doren is a guy I’d like to know more about. Nevertheless, this poem struck when I came across it a few days ago, and I feel that it helps capture the essence of the creative story-teller, a vocation which knows that all is alive and life is a grand story to share. I hope it stirs your imagination as it has mine. When someone tells a good story, a “worm” is wakened “in the world’s brain” and nothing stands firms again. What great story has done this to you?

He talked, and as he talked
Wallpaper came alive;
Suddenly ghosts walked;
And four doors were five;

Calendars ran backward,
And maps had mouths;
Ships went tackward
In a great drowse;

Trains climbed trees,
And soon dripped down
Like honey of bees
On the cold brick town.

He had wakened a worm
In the world’s brain,
And nothing stood firm
Until day again.

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Poetry Wednesday: Abandoned Farmhouse

photo from Poetry Foundation

Ted Kooser, 2004 and 2005 US Poet Laureate, visited my small, Midwestern university back in 2009. Unfortunately I was not able to attend his poetry reading at the time. Nevertheless, I became slightly acquainted with his poetry.

Ted Kooser, born in 1939, is a pastoral, Midwestern poet of sorts. He focuses on rural landscapes and universal themes, and what makes him so powerful is his accessibility. In an age of obscurity, abstraction, and elitism in poetry, Kooser brings poetry back to the people. Perhaps Dana Gioia sums up Kooser best.

…unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate. -Can Poetry Matter

Here I share Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” (1980). What might we discover if we came upon an abandoned farmhouse or any old building for that matter? What do we deduce without a word when we meet someone? What kind of burdens are they carrying? Perhaps Kooser’s poem does not exactly raise our spirits, but it helps us think about our lives and the symbols of our stuff.

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.