Reflecting on Another Mass Shooting

 

Investigators work at the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, November 5. A man opened fire inside the small community church, killing at least 26 people.
Photo and article information retrieved from CNN

4% of the town population was obliterated. Eight members of a single family were killed. The gunman’s grandmother-in-law could not avoid the destruction. Even the pastor’s daughter died yesterday. It was denounced as an act of evil. It was evil.

I don’t know much about the shooter. No one does yet. It’s been barely 24 hours since the attack, since the killer himself was silenced forever. He was ex-military, discharged for bad conduct after a domestic violence case. Was he attacking humans yesterday or, in his mind, was he battling some demon? Were there some claws in his brain from his military past that wouldn’t release him? I don’t know. Regardless, the end result was twenty-six innocent lives lost.

At times like this, it feels as though nothing is sacred. The shooter attacked a church. A church. However, the lives in Sutherland Springs were no more valuable than those lost in Las Vegas or in Orlando or in Newtown or in…or in…

My fiancee is from another country. We’re working through the visa process. We talked through and prayed through this event yesterday. It felt a little hollow giving the same explanation I did after trying to quell any of her fears from the Las Vegas shootings. “It’s far away. It couldn’t happen here.” I bet words like that were barely a month removed from the lips of the dead when they had once heard about the Las Vegas massacre.

So where do we go from here? Life is so fragile. Mourn with those who mourn. Right now, any other counsel just feels insufficient.

November 5th

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.

#HappySunday

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. 

6 Reasons to Read Macbeth

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Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.

This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.

1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.

Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

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2. The Scottish setting

Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.

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Dunsinane Hill from Wikipedia

3. The universal themes

Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.

…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)

Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.

4. The enticing plot

From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!

5. The brilliant writing

Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.22-31)

6. The great adaptations

Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.

 

Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.

So, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

5 Reasons NOT to Travel

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I tried to find a meme poking fun at “wanderlust.” This is the closest I could find. HA!

Not many blogs today are going to discourage any readers from traveling, but, though I believe in the power and importance of cross-cultural experiences and travel, sometimes we need to check our motives. This post is a follow-up to my last, “5 Reasons to Travel” (sorry I didn’t post this a week later like I originally said…first year teacher probz). This is sort of my caveat post because I would like to continue some of the exciting trends and destinations in travel. However, I don’t want to perpetuate the narcissism machine that often plagues my generation, i.e. “Look how great I am because I travel!” So go out and see the world. See the world abroad. See the world in your neighborhood. See the world in your own country’s cultural centers (check out this great Nat Geo article “Five Ways to Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown”). But try to avoid adventure for the wrong reasons. Here are some examples.

1) Narcissism 

As already alluded to, many of today’s social media posts are incredibly me-focused. There are all kinds of psychological studies out there about the use of social media to create a sort of avatar of our perfect selves. Global adventures can easily devolve into hollow attempts to demonstrate just how great and exciting our lives are–sometimes a tool to mask our own insecurities. I’m preaching to myself here. So, keep sharing your adventures; don’t be ashamed. Your friends and family want to celebrate with you (I hope). But travel is not a game. There’s no trophy for most exotic lifestyle. In fact, a lot of travel is much less sexy than you realize. Though I’m incredibly thankful for some of my solo voyages, they have also been some of the most lonely and soul-searching.

2) Freedom

Like most things, freedom is a case of moderation. Independence is good. Being a drifter unwilling or unable to maintain long-term community and relationships is not. In fact, it may be a good indicator of deep brokenness rather than a free spirit. This realization I learned more experientially in my own travels. Some of my adventuring was really just an escape from people and personal pain. However, such getaways often left me even lonelier than before. Writing from a Christian perspective (I realize not everyone subscribes to my personal beliefs, but I believe this wisdom is universal), humanity was not made to live in isolation. We were made for relationships. I don’t believe that a lifestyle of wandering (unsustained community) harmonizes with who we are on our most fundamental level.

3) Savior-complex

Living in El Salvador I had some good conversations about the perceptions of locals towards gringo missionaries (this is not me being overly critical but rather raising awareness). Though there was always a respect for the work that many mission groups were doing (building projects, medical trips, youth camps, sports camps, etc.), there was also some frustration towards a savior mentality often manifested in the people of prosperous nations. Here they were trying to save the locals from their poor, tragic lives and often unwilling to appreciate or respect the culture they were entering. This was probably most realized in long-term missionaries unwilling to even try learning the local language. It was perceived as an arrogant presupposition that English is superior, that American culture is superior. Imagine the hubris of entering my culture, my country, and expecting me to speak to you in your language. Of course, the realities of these situations are often more complicated than they seem, but it is a reminder that all aid should be given with humility and respect. Even on a short-term trip, learning 5-10 phrases in the local language communicates appreciation towards the host culture.

4) Complete self-actualization

In response to my previous post’s point about the beauty of self-discovery when traveling, we need to remember that travel will not save us. We grow. We mature. But travel will not completely fix us. Minus the nearly unattainable exceptions of people who have been able to travel as an ongoing lifestyle, most of us have to come back and live in the real world of real jobs and real relationships, and we must learn to live and thrive in that reality. Travel can be an awakening or a recharge, but it will not save you.

5) Getting wasted

The purpose of this final point is not to make a judgment on readers’ drinking habits (what is wise or not or, from a religious perspective, what is moral or not). Rather, this is my soapbox from personal travel experiences. I remember staying in various hostels throughout Europe and meeting travelers who basically spent their whole time partying all night and sleeping all day. While in Rome, I vividly remember thinking about how tragic it was that some of the Americans needed to spend thousands of dollars to fly to the seat of their Western cultural roots just to get stupid drunk every night. The Vatican was just down the road. The Colosseum was just down the road. And they missed it. That’s what I was processing as I got myself up each day to explore the city and pass by their passed out bodies. Come on, guys. We can do better than this.

In closing, let’s remember that traveling is an incredible privilege that MOST people around the world are unable to enjoy. Please stop acting like some people are somehow second-class citizens because they’ve never been overseas (I’m looking at myself on this one sometimes). I am a proponent of prioritizing your finances towards travel and new experiences (money to buy memories and not just bigger stuff). However, adventure looks different for different people, and if you’re from a prosperous nation like the United States, remember that most people around the world could not afford the adventures you have even if they wanted to. This does not mean that you should feel bad for traveling. Get out there. Explore. But do so with understanding and wisdom.

So, let me ask you, are there any other bad motivations for traveling that you’d like to share? Comment below.

 

5 Reasons to Travel

[I will follow up next week on this post with “5 Reasons Not to Travel;” I figured I’d begin on a positive note.]

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Some day-hiking in Holyhead, Wales back in 2010. Alas, my hair doesn’t look like that anymore.

It’s like everyone travels these days. There are a billion travel blogs; a billion travel agents or booking sites trying to offer some special deal on hotels, flights, or vacation; a billion exotic photos flooding Instagram. And they are all trying to WOW you into submission.  It can be rather overwhelming for the inexperienced traveler. Or jealousy-inducing for those without deep pockets. Or disillusioning for experienced travelers who suddenly realize their totally awesome adventure is not so unique after all (a clear sign of our extreme individualism…don’t worry, I’m right there with you).

Millennials are changing the landscape of modern vacations. They are traveling significantly more than their parents and grandparents, and they’re letting everyone know about it. Of course, I’m simply adding to the travel blog noise, but today I wanted to take it back to the basics. Why is traveling important? Because it is important. But not always for the reasons advertised. Here are five (there are plenty more) of my favorite reasons for traveling.

1) Cultural awareness/sensitivity

Thinking of engaging other cultures can sound so exotic and international. But different cultures exist even within one’s own country. There’s an urban culture versus a rural culture. In the United States there’s a West Coast culture, an East Coast culture, a Southern culture, a Midwest culture, and I’m pretty sure Texas is its own country and culture.

Interacting with people of other cultures gives us the ability to empathize and understand and treat others as human beings (even when we don’t always agree on every ideology or cultural value). Plus, interacting with other cultures means trying new food! Yum!

2) Active living

This isn’t always a reality, but those who travel are often living more actively. They’re biking around new cities. They’re hiking in the outdoors or perhaps along the village-connecting trails of Cinque Terre. They’re taking tours of castles or museums or zoos. They’re swimming in the ocean. They’re white water rafting. I guess what I’m trying to say is TRAVELLING SAVES LIVES (that’s not a stretch, is it?).

3) Activism

This is a touchy issue, and I’m going to address the dangers of this in more detail next week. However, visiting war-torn or impoverished areas (seeing these places in person) is often the impetus to support important causes like clean water, curable diseases, malnutrition, etc. For those who have grown up in a comfort bubble, travel can be the remedy to live awake to the stark realities of the world.

4) Self-discovery

This is one of my favorite and an idea I’d like to develop further in the future. Though modern travel is a bit of a phenomena, journeying for self-discovery is quite ancient. Pilgrimages such as El Camino de Santiago in Spain or the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca are ancient. Silence and solitude have been strong monastic disciplines for hundreds of years. Travel can help you know yourself.

5) Fun!

Lastly, travel is fun. Sometimes, we don’t need any better reason than to have fun. Seeing new places invokes a sense of wonder and imagination. When I first backpacked through Europe, the fairy tales that I adored were coming to life in their natural habitat. For me, that was so much fun!

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of this list. Can you think of any other important reasons for travel? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

What to Read, Where to Go?

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Need ideas?

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.

Will you join me?

What would you like to see here?

Guatemala and Big (Personal) News

Last spring, during Semana Santa, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Antigua, Guatemala…

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…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.

Enjoy some of the pictures.

 

Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

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. Image result for the hobbit coversThus 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.

Follow New Instagram Account: A Little Literary Fun on the Side

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“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.

a big cup of books on Instagram

at the still point, there the dance is...

 

 

 

An Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

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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.