Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writer's Constipation

There are words inside of you. Tons and tons of Words. There are so many words inside your head that it's physically uncomfortable. You can feel them like a pressure behind your eyeballs. There are too many words to keep inside.

You smile. Cool. So you can write. You'll write. How exciting!

So you sit down at your computer, or pull out a notebook and pen. You stare at the blankness, and prepare to write. The words leap to the tip of your mental tongue. You wait for them to make the final connection and spill forth.

But they don't.

You put your fingertips directly on the keyboard, hoping to signal your words that it's time to come out now. This is their cue. Nnnnnnnnow.

But they just sit there.

You frown and make a conscious effort to dislodge the words from your mind. You close your eyes and try to hunt down a good word. Just one word that feels right. An adjective maybe. Or a name.

You picture yourself running around in your mind, arms outstretched, chasing a small word in block letters. "Come ON!" you demand. "It'll be FUN. What is WRONG with you?"

Eventually you might catch a word, but the satisfaction slinks away as the word glares at you. It doesn't perform. It just sulks there on the page alone, crossing its arms and hating you. It's not fun. It's just a pain in the butt, and you backspace it, half out of spite.

Forget words. How about an Idea? A word is such a specific, elusive creature; an idea can be led along much more happily. Just moments ago, there were a lot of ideas skating around in your head, graceful and strong and silver, like a spiderweb.

Your mind's hand drifts out to take one, but instead of sticking and blossoming, the idea goes limp and disintegrates. Just when you think you have one, it leaves. There's a terrible mental dryness leftover, like your head needs a drink. Maybe a stiff one.

So you sit there, staring at the blankness in front of you, feeling full of words, but unable to produce a single one. You stare at the blankness, frustrated and uncomfortable, and watch the moment tease you, and flee. The urge to write fades slowly as the irritation builds in its place.

There was something great there, you knew it, but now it's lost, gone, and it's not even your fault. The injustice. The frustration. The hurt.

Some call it writer's block. But that's not the most accurate description.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Teenage Brain

I stir sugar into my hot tea with a knife. {Oh please, no college student washes silverware until the very last utensil is dirty}. Today I was surprised to see the graceful explosion of tea leaves swirling around in my mug. I was raking a serrated metal edge against a thin, wet tea bag. What did I expect to happen? Somehow, not that.

Then I got to thinking.

The human brain doesn't effectively factor in consequences until it's 25. We watch videos in health class about how eating badly can cause diabetes, and tanning can cause melanoma, and smoking increases risk of lung cancer, but there's a disconnect in our heads. Our subconscious definitions of "relevant" are exceptionally narrow.

Researchers say that this is just the way young adult brains work. It's a scientific fact. It's not that we CAN'T make the better choice, it's that we don't fully understand why it's better.

So what? Is it not our fault that we have bad judgment? Should we be exempt from blame when we make stupid choices?

My immediate response was, "No, of course not. Even a three-year-old is expected to follow rules." Don't hit people; use your inside voice; don't leave the front yard. If toddlers are legitimately subjected to rules, teenagers should not have a My-Brain-Hasn't-Developed-That-Far-Yet card to play.

So yes, teenagers should be expected to follow rules. But that's not quite the question I had originally asked myself. "Following rules" and "making choices" are two radically different things. Rules result from authority; the option to make a choice results from having authority yourself.

During the teen years, people are given more authority over themselves. They get more freedom, and, of course, with freedom comes responsibility. It's not just about following rules anymore; it's about choosing our own rules, drawing our own boundaries.

But as soon as we're allowed to make our own choices, our brains become ill-equipped to make good ones. What are we do to, then?

I think it depends on what kind of person you are. Some teens are perfectly content to seek out authority figures and ask them for advice. They continue to follow the rules that have been set for them, and ask mentors to help make new choices.

But then you have the other kind of person, the kind of person who wants to see for herself; the kind of person who wants to find out WHY that rule exists before she chooses to follow it, or builds her choices on that rule.

The first situation is ideal, I guess. Best case scenario, teens listen to their mentors until their own brains develop enough to make good judgment calls. There is definitely honor in this approach, and I'm sure it prevents a lot of heartache.

However, I mostly wouldn't know, because I am Kind of Person Number Two.

I'm an advocate for freedom of decision:  freedom to make stupid choices with the knowledge that consequences--good or bad--will follow. I think your conviction to do right becomes stronger once you truly understand wrong.

{Experience also makes you undeniably more convincing and better able to advise Kind of Person Number One. Number Two probably isn't going to listen to you anyway.}

But getting back to the original question:  Can teens be held accountable for their choices if their brains are scientifically not conducive to good decision-making?

Absolutely. And they should be.

But instead of condemning them for making the "wrong" choices, we should remember that they couldn't see it coming quite the same way, and that their "screw-up," no matter how devastating, is ultimately one more step on the road to true understanding.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poetry and Party Poopers

No one knows who wrote "Beowulf." But because of "Beowulf," we know a lot about ancient culture, particularly about some of the first literary heroes and villains.

For instance, the villain--the monster named Grendel--hates music. He first attacks the kingdom because he hears singing and it annoys him. He hates the sound; he hates the celebration; he hates the fellowship.

Grendel lives far away from people. {I guess he just has phenomenal hearing.} We later find out that he shares a home with his mother, but it's just the two of them. He hates company.

From the way Grendel is villainized {I choose to believe that's a word}, we modern-day readers can gather that in "Beowulf's" day, silence and solitude were frowned upon. If you didn't like poetry and parties, you were evil.

But then you have the hero, Beowulf, himself. Beowulf doesn't LIVE in solitude, but does insist on going to battle alone. How come the hero can get away with the very actions that make the villain what he is?

I don't know.

I also can't decide if I think today's values have changed or not.

Certainly, today's heroes must be team players or they're labeled "arrogant." If modern heroes demand to work alone, 9 times out of 10 they end up suffering some kind of "humbling" experience that teaches them to value others. This is because today’s issues are increasingly of global rather than regional importance, causing heroes to model teamwork as a subtle lesson for society.

What about poetry and parties? Personally, I support the idea that hating poetry makes you a villain XD But parties?

I think today's society is at least a little more accepting of introverts. We don't rip their arms off or anything. However, there's still the whole wallflower/party pooper stigma, and being "popular" is a timelessly desirable trait.

I dunno. In thirteen hundred years, a lot of things can change. But some things don't change a lot.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Souls are Songs

Every soul is a song.

There are different instruments, genres, tempos, lyrics, voices, messages, depths, audiences. It’s all music, yes; but at the same time, each song is radically different.

Deep within your soul song is harmony, running through each note with thrilling depth and revelation.

Harmony is your purpose, path, desire, goal. It's always there, but you have to hear it in order to sing it. Sometimes you recognize it out of nowhere, and you wonder how you missed it before. Sometimes other people have to point it out to you, sing it with you, to get you to notice it.

Sometimes you lose the harmony, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve sung it or listened for it. It’s always there, but you’ll stop hearing it if you aren’t careful.

There’s more than one harmony. You have alto harmony, and soprano harmony, and variations in between.

Sometimes you can only be hear or sing one harmony, but sometimes you can hear multiples. Then you have to choose which best suits your voice. Or, if you’re singing with someone else, you pick the harmony that best complements his.

Songs can be played with different instruments to get different effects. It depends on what instruments are available, what effect you’re going for, and for whom you’re playing. But your song is always the same, and usually a certain arrangement will suit it best.

Our souls were composed by one who delights in His music. He delights in sharing it; he delights when it’s listened to, analyzed, and appreciated.

He loves all His songs and He created each with a unique harmony. He eagerly awaits the day when each perfect harmony will be hummed, and every song will reach its glorious full potential to awe, inspire, convict, and transform.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

I Don't Like Love Stories

I think I don't like love stories because they're all lies.

I guess to some extent, all stories are "lies" in that they're fiction. But see, no one expects {REALLY expects} to be able to read a character into our world or travel to Venus. At least, by the time you're old enough to look for truth in books, you know that those things won't happen. But by the time you're old enough to look for truth in books, you're also old enough to search for Love, and that is something we really DO expect.

In real life, we look for love and expect to find it, so it seems cruel and wrong to write stories that set people up for failure.

Books--love stories in any form--are pretty clear from the beginning. The main characters are laid out for you and you can tell instantly which guy{s} are on the list of potential Trueloves. By about half or three-fourths of the way through the story, you're sure whom the main character will end up with. {In movies, it's usually within the first fourth.}

Real life is absolutely nothing like that. In real life, you're sort of always and never in medias res. Yes, you're in the midst of your life right now, but at any moment, something completely new could be introduced. Every second of life could be the beginning of a new story. There's never a time where you can nod and say, "Okay, no more central characters are going to be introduced" or "Clearly, this is the main plot strain."

In a way, real life can never be authentically translated to a story, because stories deal with neatly defined sections of a person's life and include--for the most part--only details relevant to the story. {Unless it's by Herman Melville.} In a story, you know what to pay attention to, because if it's there at all, it's likely important. In real life, you have all of the details all of the time and must prioritize them on your own.

However, some kinds of stories can achieve more authenticity than love stories, for example ones that deal with solving a mystery, investigating a crime, or battling an enemy. Those stories can be more authentically contained by literature because they have beginnings and endings in real life too. Mysteries have answers; crimes have perpetrators; evil kings have deaths. In both stories and in real life, the components of the answer exist before you embark on the journey. In both stories and real life, you know for sure when you can check the box on the story's completion.

Plus, mystery/crime/morality stories contain universal, applicable life lessons. Love stories are generally mined incorrectly for wisdom. Instead of looking at a story and saying, "Clearly lying to people results in unimaginable heartbreak," people look and say, "Clearly a liar can still be your true love if you just don't give up on him." People miss the trees for the forest, instead of the other way around.

But even if crime-solving and enemy-fighting stories couldn't be applied to real life, the topics aren't sacred. They're universal and impersonal enough that it wouldn't be terribly offensive to distort them a bit.

But to distort something like LOVE...that's just sick. "Love stories" usually pump people full of unrealistic expectations of the scope and clarity and beauty of love. Real life and real love cannot be detected any better by familiarizing yourself with romantic fiction. Real love is too complicated to reduce to a finite story.

Love stories do a gross disservice to Love and lead people to false knowledge. I'd rather read something else. To me, "Inkheart" is somehow more real than "The Notebook."


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Humility: a Luxury of the Strong

"Alright." Dr. Dunnum's pleasant mid-western accent blanketed the inane buzz of the classroom. Voices and pencil cases quieted with beginning-of-semester immediacy. "So, Beowulf. Everyone should have read Beowulf for today. Epic poem. Sort of the first piece of English literature that we have. Today I want us to sort of look at the notion of 'the hero.' Heroes illustrate what a given culture admires. Someone name another famous ancient hero."

Faces turned with expectant disgust on the girl who had--in one previous class alone--singled herself out as the socially inept know-it-all. Sure enough, her nasally voice rang out:

"Well, Odysseus, of course. Of Homer's Odyssey."

Dr. Dunnum nodded, clearly aware of the potential minefield of unwelcome information he was walking through. "And what was Odysseus known for?"

"His cleverness." Her deep breath and raised eyebrows warned of an impending torrent of explanation and opinion. Dr. Dunnum neatly cut her off.

"Right. A lot of texts will translate his description as wily. He was wily: very clever and willing to lie. And this suggests to us that wiliness and deceit were actually admired traits in the Greek culture."

Dr. Dunnum strode to the whiteboard. "What I want us to do, is get into our groups and come up with a list of adjectives we'd use to describe Beowulf."

After the exercise came a time of sharing. Dr. Dunnum wrote the suggestions on the whiteboard in his cramped, curly handwriting. Adjectives like valiant, strong, generous, loyal, and transparent were offered.

Dr. Dunnum turned his sharp blue eyes on the girl who'd offered "transparent."

"What do you mean by that?"

The girl straightened in her chair and gestured slightly with her pen as she answered. "He's open about his strategies and motives. He tells the people exactly what he intends to do, and that he expects to receive glory for it. He doesn't hide the fact that he wants recognition."

Another girl threw out the word "boastful." Dr. Dunnum nodded and scribbled the word at the bottom of the list.

"So, pride was a big deal for these people." He raised an eyebrow in an inviting expression. Students nodded. "And yet, no one seemed to really have a problem with that. Boasting and glory are huge parts of Beowulf's character, and yet he's the hero. Does this suggest that the Angelo-Saxon culture valued arrogance?"

Dr. Dunnum switched gears with a swing of his head, eyes gleaming. "How about heroes today? Who can we compare Beowulf to? In your groups, pick a modern hero and write down some of the traits associated with him or her."

"Transparent" Girl glanced back at her group, shades of condescension showing behind her thin smile. "Who do we think, guys?"

"I 'on' know, man," said her closest neighbor, leaning his chair back on two legs. "Like Supe'man or somethin'."

Something genuine leaped in the girl's eyes. "That's what I was thinking! There aren't really a whole lot of wholesome, superhumanly strong characters out there."

She got to work on her list: honest, just, wholesome, worthy, loyal, humble...

Dr. Dunnum invited the groups to write their heroes and traits on the board. When the chaos of voices and the squelching of dry-erase markers faded, the board held three Supermans, a Thor, a Captain America, and a Batman.

"Transparent" Girl gave a throaty noise of disapproval as her eyes passed over the lists. Chair-Tipper glanced at her expectantly. She looked embarrassed through her annoyance. "Under 'Batman'," she said, stabbing her pen in the direction of the whiteboard. "someone wrote 'fearless.' It's just...Batman's not fearless."

Chair-Tipper lost interest.

"Okay," Dr. Dunnum interrupted the din of unavoidable side conversations. "What are some common themes here?" He walked in front of the board and circled the recurring words: brave, loyal, strong. "What are we not seeing?" He paused at the Batman list and gave it a look of confusion, frowning slightly. "Transparent" Girl felt smugly validated.

Dr. Dunnum turned his eyes on the class, eyebrows raised. "Boasting. Arrogance. Pride." He tilted his head. "It's not here. We, as a culture, put less emphasis on pride as a positive thing. Why is that?"

"We have-uh lass to buh-rag about-uh," came a strong valley girl accent from across the room.

"Yeah?" Dr. Dunnum couldn't keep the chuckle out of his voice. "Penicillin? No big deal?"

"I mean-uh..." Valley Girl looked immediately enraged. "Like, we don't have like-uh one guy who could win a war alone-uh."

Dr. Dunnum nodded thoughtfully. "Okay. But do you think the Angelo-Saxons really did either? I mean, this is just a story. Beowulf was not real."

Valley Girl rolled her eyes and turned her attention apparently to her crotch, presumably to her iPhone.

"Less had already been done?" Someone suggested from the back. "Bragging was more legitimate back then because people were doing things for the very first time."

Dr. Dunnum nodded some more. "Okay."

"Transparent" Girl put her elbows on her desk and leaned forward, suddenly intensely engaged. No one was getting it. This question required real thinking. Why did the Angelo-Saxons value boastfulness? Why did Americans today shy away from it? Why?

Her brain churned up chunks of thought, which she examined and mentally threw over her shoulder. No, no, no. What positive outcomes could occur from bragging?

The answer leaped to the front of her mind with an electric stab of understanding. Her hand raised itself. Dr. Dunnum caught her eye and wrapped up his acknowledgment of another mediocre answer.

"Yes?" he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Back then, your reputation was a way of protecting those you loved," she offered. "By boasting, inflating his reputation, Beowulf was actually ensuring that no one would attack his people. It wasn't all selfish. He was trying to help his family."

"And what did everyone think when Beowulf died?"

"They expected to be invaded."

"Yes." Dr. Dunnum walked back to the center of the whiteboard and addressed the class. "Today, in the modern world, we have such impressive technology and are so strong that..." He shrugged. "We don't really need to brag. Our reputation goes without saying."

He pointed to Beowulf's name, written in red dry-erase maker. "Could we maybe even argue that the people of Beowulf's time bragged out of weakness, and not strength? That their need to assert their reputation grew out of fear and anxiety?"

It was 1:50pm. The students began forcing their notebooks and textbooks back into their backpacks.

"Transparent" Girl left the classroom on a dreamy Idea High. What a thought. Humility: a luxury of the strong.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Happy Enough to Die

{inspired by Florence + the Machine's "I'm Not Calling You a Liar"}

"I am happy enough to die."

That phrase confused me as a kid. If you're happy, why would you want to die? Doesn't it make more sense to die when you're sad?

Well, in a way it does. But who wants a death like that? Who wants to die with a broken soul leaking from his eyes? Who wants to die with a smashed heart tearing its way through his ribs? Answer: No one.

An ideal death--if that can be a thing--is a satisfied death. You leave this world with a smile, and few regrets. You relinquish your grip on life with a confident wholeness, knowing you've done what you were here to do and you're ready to face what comes next. For some people an ideal death might be taking a bullet for a loved one; for others it might be a quiet, anticipated passing surrounded by friends.

But whether you envision your last as moments heroic or nostalgic, one thing's for sure: you don't want to die miserable.

Some moments are beautiful and whole enough to be your last. "I'm happy enough to die" doesn't mean, "Wow, life is so great that I think I'll leave now." It means, "I can't imagine a more perfect ending."

It was just this year that I really began to understand being "happy enough to die." As to be expected (considering how I am), the moment that enlightened me wasn't breathtakingly romantic or overwhelmingly sweet. I think my first "happy enough to die moment" took place in a vehicle driven by a friend. We were driving along, listening to music, laughing, talking, and one of those Well-This-Was-Definitely-A-Poor-Driving-Decision moments occurred.

I didn't panic. I didn't really feel alarmed at all. I remember continuing to laugh and be happy, thinking, "Well, if I'm going to die, I really don't mind dying with my best friend."

Those moments--when you can close your eyes and feel joy like a tangible thing in your heart--are the moments in which you wouldn't mind dying. There's something satisfying, poetic about your last breath being a laugh, your last glance being full of love, your last words being happy. No one genuinely wants to die crying, full of hatred and spewing cruelty. Everyone wants to die happy.

I think the moral here is clear: No one knows when death will come, so if you want to die happy, then live happy. Seize every moment, give every smile. Laugh lots, forgive fully, live intentionally.

Live happy enough to die.