On Telling the Truth: Post-Election Edition

What I think I’m doing here: rambling, barely coherent commentary and critique on my own work. The better question is: what do you think you’re doing here?

I have been thinking about my earlier essay on telling the truth because, well … [gestures broadly at post-election discourse]. I received very little feedback on it, and I didn’t think it was entirely successful, but I was glad I spent some time trying to wrestle with it because … [gestures broadly again]. And, I find myself continuing to chew over some of the ideas I was working through.

There are a few reasons why the essay didn’t quite work the way I hoped. One was due to self-indulgence on my part – I was pleased with myself for trying to weave something together from diverse writers like Bonhoeffer, Fitzgerald, and Stephenson … too pleased. I’m not sure that weaving together all three quite provided the insight I was hoping for (or perhaps I just needed to spend some more time/effort on making it work). A more direct, streamlined approach might have been more effective (more truthful?): I think I was disturbed by the ways in which the real world was mirroring Stephenson’s novel and was hoping that Bonhoeffer might help me wrestle with that reality.

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Our Cousins in Rome

The ancients revered the frightful sway of the goddess Fortuna, aware, in their own way, that the presiding powers of history seem to be a volatile mix of structure and chance, laws of nature and sheer luck. The Romans lived at a fateful juncture in the human story, and the civilization they built was, in ways the Romans could not have imagined, the victim both of its own success and the caprice of the environment. The enduring power of the Romans to enchant us derives, at least in part, from the poignancy of our knowledge that they stood on the invisible edge of unsuspected change. The long, intertwined story of humanity and nature is full of paradox, surprise, and blind chance. That is why the particularity of history matters. Nature, like humanity, is cunning, but constrained by the circumstances of the past. Our story, and the story of the planet, are inseparable.

The Fate of Rome

Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire is packed full of disaster. Volcanic eruptions blot out the sun, people drop dead in the street, crops rot in the fields because there is no one to harvest them – it describes, quite literally, the end of a world. And, it might be one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in the past few months as we grapple with our own global pandemic against a backdrop of shifting demography and a rapidly changing climate.

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All Good Things

It isn’t all bad, you know. I say this for myself, doom-scrolling the news, earning simultaneous internet PhDs in epidemiology, economics, and political science. I mean, the other blog post currently in my drafts is all about our collective failure to confront death and how it might be driving us crazy, so maybe I just need to lighten up a little (or a lot). Maybe sometimes we just need a little reminder that there is still beauty in the world.

Lately, I’ve been loving this album from Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (no, I don’t know how to pronounce his name – his website offers this: “Kwee-veen Oh Rye Alla”) and Thomas Bartlett, a new discovery for me. Ó Raghallaigh’s “hardanger d’amore” (a ten-string fiddle) and Bartlett’s piano swirl around one another, often repeating and building themes, and then breaking back down again. It’s music that opens up space. And, in a world constrained by the width of my smartphone screen, by the feed scrolling by, infinite in length but so narrow in scope, I need that push towards opening up. I need reminders that there is still beauty and loveliness in the world. And, maybe you do too.

You

One of the things that has become most apparent over recent months is the luxury of the ordinary. I, at least, have a renewed appreciation for the everyday and routine amid all the instability and uncertainty. When I say “ordinary” I’m not trying to say “normal” – I’m not sure what exactly counts as normal in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times. The phrase the “new normal” points to the slipperiness of normality, the way it shapeshifts over time. Human beings are adaptable creatures, often more than we realize, and any “return” to normality is always just an establishment and acceptance of some new set of norms.

The ordinary is entwined with the normal, as over time the extraordinary can become accepted as ordinary. But, the ordinary still stands usefully on its own – the “new ordinary” doesn’t have the same ring as the “new normal” and not just because it lacks alliteration. The ordinary is more enduring, more connected to our lives as embodied and relational creatures, more often shared across time and culture.

In 2012, Nils Frahm fell and broke his thumb, and, “as you can imagine, it is really bad news for a pianist when he gets diagnosed with a broken thumb.” He lost his ordinary for a while and was unable to play with his typical virtuosity (his ordinary would be most people’s extraordinary). While his thumb healed, he wrote and recorded the songs that became the album Screws (a reference to the screws that held his broken thumb in place). It’s a spare and quiet album, simple without being simplistic. There are stretches of silence, melodic phrases that circle and repeat, leaving space for reflection. Frahm’s injury slowed him down, and something beautiful resulted.

For me, it’s been an album that has strong associations with the luxurious boredom of ordinary life. Over the past year or two, I’ve often listened to it while doing the dishes at the sink, from time to time glancing out at our strip of backyard through the window. Sometimes I spot a gang of three or four sparrows, making their way in an uneven line across the grass with flutters and twitchy hops in the twilight. Or, in the winter, I catch the reflection of a soapy dish in the darkened glass, the thrum of stories and pajamas and bath-time disputes swirling in the house around me, with no thought but how to best scrub the bowl clean.

We Will Feast in the House of Zion

Sometimes we sing the words without thinking. The lyrics scroll past as our minds wander vacantly along their usual pathways of mundane concerns. It’s not even that we are in the grip of some dark night of the soul and seriously doubt that “We will feast in the house of Zion / We will sing with hearts restored” – more that we don’t even rise to the level of engagement active doubt would require. We are distracted and bored and stifle a yawn. But there are other times too, times like the current moment, when “In the dark of night, before the dawn / My soul be not afraid” resonates with our own fears and aspirations. Times when singing of our hope of a promised reunion, the marriage supper of the Lamb, gives a glimpse of what a restored heart might actually feel like.

It’s a strange Holy Week, and while Sandra McCracken’s albums have been in heavy rotation in the Cairns household over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying “We Will Feast” from Psalms especially this week. Many of the songs on the album are straightforward adaptations of specific psalms or scripture passages, but “We Will Feast” is a more wide-ranging mix of biblical imagery from the Psalms, Isaiah, Revelation – all centered on the idea of the promised feast in the place where God dwells, a celebration where the old order of suffering and tears has been overcome. We are all feeling the pain of separation right now, of our limits in the face of pain and death, and I find myself holding on to the hope of being “upheld, protected, gathered up” more than I usually do. I am typically more complacent, more confident in my own independence and self-sufficiency. But, complacent self-sufficiency isn’t an option right now, and so I sing along, not with bored disengagement, or smug independence, but in genuine hope of the promised feast that is to come.

Blogging in Pandemic-time

In October 1939, C.S. Lewis delivered a sermon to Oxford students titled, “Learning in War-time” (which, it would probably be better if you skip the rest of this and just go read it instead – you can find various bootleg copies online, or in the collection of essays titled, The Weight of Glory). As the “normal” of everyday life seems to dissolve hour by hour and the various consequences of a global pandemic come into focus, I found myself revisiting Lewis’s address recently. Likely I’m joining a multitude of other readerly and writerly types who feel useless in the face of charts tracking terrifying exponential curves. What good is literature and the arts in the face of an implacable world-eating virus? I am finding it hard to focus on my normal, routine tasks and responsibilities, drawn repeatedly to various online dashboards and live update news feeds. This isn’t my usual mode of operation – I usually don’t find it that difficult to unplug, but this, this has been hard to ignore.

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