Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.
And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.
Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years.
It’s the end of summer. Perhaps you’re back in the office daydreaming about next summer’s dream vacation rather than the work in front of you. You have Travelocity or Travelzoo bookmarked in your browser. You’re skimming travel photos, imagining the perfect adventure. You have the most epic travel playlist on Spotify. You’ve been watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for inspiration. Perhaps you’re uncertain about where you want to go. Perhaps you’re working up the courage to do something extra daring, something really outside your comfort zone. Of course Travelocity only goes so far. In fact, sometimes travel sites can be even more discouraging as they can cater to a clientele with substantially deeper pockets than your own. But the itch remains. Maybe you have a little bit of the what but you need more of the why or how.
Over the last year this blog has been primarily concerned with documenting some of my life as a teacher in El Salvador as well as providing resources for students. As I transition back into the States—I accepted a language arts teaching position just outside Kansas City—I want to stay active on this blog, but I want to expand the purpose and vision. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet, but I want to connect readers with relevant information especially related to the world of travel, books, and even a little bit of teaching and faith. I want to answer more of the whats for travel—what’s out there? But I also want to engage with the whys and hows. Why is travel important? How do I travel in a meaningful (re: non-superficial, non-dehumanizing) way? How do I travel on a budget?
I also want to highlight the literary world more, connecting readers to great books, relevant literary news, and potentially some great literary causes.
Last spring, during Semana Santa, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Antigua, Guatemala…
…with my fiancee, Elena!
Yes, it has been difficult for me to post as frequently as I’d like because of some crazy (awesome) life events including proposing to my amazing fiancee and transitioning back to the United States to continue teaching (I’ll post more on that later), but I hope to resume somewhat frequent blog posts about life, literature, and travel.
So…back to Guatemala. Semana Santa literally translates as Holy Week, and it is an important Catholic holiday in Latin America (and important on the Christian calendar all over the world): the week before Easter. Many people are on holiday that week, if not for the whole week then usually Thursday and Friday at least. Trying to avoid the overwhelming crowds the weekend of Easter, Elena, her sister and parents, and I visited Antigua Sunday through Tuesday.
Sometimes, when traveling, one of the difficulties is that certain cities/countries/areas might be rather unsafe. Thus, one of the great treasures of Latin America is Antigua, Guatemala. The government has maintained stricter security there, it is very safe, and it allows one to experience the incredibly rich Latin American culture without some of the security issues in other places.
So imagine walking down rustic, stone streets, meandering through various side streets, surrounded by antiquarian, colonial architecture, breathing in the sights and sounds of artisan peddlers, food vendors, musicians, and various languages from diverse travelers all over the world. Old churches and cathedrals, literally hundreds of years old, look down on the people, inviting them to share in their history of piety and religion (and, unfortunately at times historically, exploitation). The plaza is a focal point which provides beautiful greenery nestled within the small city as well as plenty of park benches to sit and soak up the atmosphere. There are cafes with incredible coffee, restaurants, and bookstores. The air there is fresh and cool, the advantage of its somewhat higher altitudes. And though there really isn’t any one specific tourist attraction (e.g. the Eiffel Tower), it’s almost nicer because there’s no pressure to rush around to anything in particular. Instead, one simply walks the streets in good company and breathes the deep, satisfied breath of another cultural gem.
Nearly everyone has been exposed to some of the fun, whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein: The Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and The Giving Tree are some of his most notable works. His writing–targeted primarily at children–shows itself to be both entertaining and often quite surprisingly deep. Today I wanted to share his poem “Invitation.” CHEERS! to fellow dreamers and creators. May your tales always find a welcome heart.
If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Thus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.
Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.
Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):
At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.
Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.
Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
“To be, or not to be…”
Some famous lines of literature. A good quote has the ability to boil down a profound idea into a single statement. Now, in this 144 character, bite-size Twitter culture, I’m not always impressed with our faddish, weightless phrases, and of course one must be careful not to rip things out of context. Nevertheless, I still believe in the power of a quotation, a nugget, a piece of gold from the classic, literary treasure chest.
Thus, here I am justifying a new little side venture. Follow this Instagram account for daily literary quotations. You can also see the account on this blog’s sidebar.
C.S. Lewis (the author who first cultivated my love of literature with his Narnia chronicles) once said about the Irish poet, essayist, and playwright William Butler (W.B.) Yeats, “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish–if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish.” Yeats remained staunchly Irish at a time when Irish heritage was often overshadowed by their more imperialistic Anglo neighbors to the east. His poetry featured Irish legends and heroes and an overall connection to his own roots. Despite his mystical and occult tendencies that at times drew criticism, there is no doubting the magnificence of his supernatural imagination. To read more about the life of W.B. Yeats, you can check out his biography at the Poetry Foundation here.
In his poem “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats balances the immortal (the rood or crucifix of time) with the mortal. According to Suheil B. Bushrui’s and Tim Prentki’s An International Companion to the Poetry of W.B. Yeats, “The strength of the poem is derived from the tension revealed by its title between immortality and mortality. The Rose is identified as ‘Eternal Beauty’ but it can only be perceived in such things as an actual rose which must die. Thus while the poet wishes to experience the influence of the Rose, he does not wish to be overwhelmed totally by its power and so lose contact with this world” (83). The poem highlights the timelessness of epic, historical deeds of Irish ancestry as well as the common, mundane realities of a “weak worm hiding” and a “field-mouse running.”
I personally appreciate and am moved by the delicate balance of mortality and immortality, or, if you will, finding the immortal in the mortal. Thus, I hope you appreciate Yeats’ masterful poem.
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.
Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.
It’s here. You’ve finally made it to the end. I’m proud of you.
And I’m not saying I’m proud of you because every single moment of every class period you acted like perfect little angels (we all know that’s not the truth). I’m saying it because…well…it’s easy to say now that you’re gone. Ha! Just kidding. No, really I’m saying it because all of you have so much potential and so much passion for life. I have had the privilege of learning so much from you; thank you for sharing your lives and culture with me. All of you have immense value, and you just completed a major milestone. You have finished high school, and you begin a new, profound journey to university, to your career, to the mysterious (and often scary) beyond. It’s amazing to me the impact and influence you might have as you take your passions literally all around the world. Some of you will continue to impact your home country, El Salvador; some of you will study in other Latin American countries; some in the United States; some in Canada; and one all the way in Korea!
I’m not sure if I ever shared this with you guys, but I was the student commencement speaker at my first undergraduate graduation. There are a million directions to take a graduation speech (I worked at a book store for a year in Boston, and we sold so many copies of Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! during graduation season), but I shared and briefly expounded upon two ideas. First, I read a few lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…” (in fact, I wrote a longer post about this very poem here). I hope you feel that, that sense of adventure, that carpe diem, that grabbing the world by it’s tail. But I also hope that life is more than that. In my graduation speech I also shared the latter part of Hebrews 11 from the Bible. Of course Hebrews 11 is remarkable, the “Hall of Faith” it has been called, recounting the deeds of faithful men and women. But the last few verses about the faithful are sensational indeed!
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:35b-40 (ESV)
Rather a sobering passage to share in light of graduation, huh? But I say this because throughout history, the most influential men and women have understood that there is a greater law than individual success, money, power, and fame. Always a life worth living involves self-sacrifice (though I hope you never need to experience the physical torture and death that some throughout the world experience). From a Christian perspective, there is the hope of greater reward than what the world can offer. This creates the freedom to serve selflessly. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So what definition of success will you live by? What cause are you willing to die for in order to truly live?
Be workers. Be leaders. Be husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. But don’t let popular, vain opinion dictate your definition of success and accomplishment. Some of the greatest servants and saints have been relatively unknown.
I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you. Now go and change the world.
About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.
I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.
In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:
What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.
It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.
I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.
So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.
It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:
Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.
All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!
-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.