Crows

I heard a murder in the woods today

the muddy creek cackled

as it gathered

 

The old leaves rattled with half-hearted lies

cawing control of the red sky

and upturned dirt

 

Though a lone shadow circled

and circled

and circled

as if counting the cost.

Life is

Listen

‘Life is meanness and then you die’

Look

‘Life’s been good to me so far’

Friend

‘Life is a breeze on which to fly’

Fool

‘Life is death, a red-clawed war’

Truly

‘To live is Him and to die is gain’

If you

Eat up the pleasure and drink down the pain

Escape or Escapism?

When he sees me he twirls an arm, flicks a wrist, and says strange phrases. He must be at least twelve years old. His thin-rimmed glasses constantly threaten to slide off his nose and his light brown hair defies a comb. The boy is a devoted fan of Harry Potter, and for reasons unknown, he casts a curse upon me when our paths cross. As he grows up, his love for the wizarding world might cool. But for now, it burns white-hot.

I have been asked often if reading literature is just an escape attempt from the real world into (childish) fantasies. Once or twice I’ve reacted defensively; other times, passively; rarely persuasively. My perspective on the problem changed when I read C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism.

Lewis helps literature-lovers by making a careful distinction between Escape and Escapism. All reading is an escape: “it involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fictions” (p. 68). Understood this way, to escape is neither bad nor good. In fact, it underlies many of our hobbies.

Escapism, on the other hand, involves “escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action” (p. 69). We are guilty of escapism when our reading penetrates so far into our lives that we cannot function properly. I have seen someone take a fictional romance and try to re-create its twists and turns into her real relationship. I fall to escapism when, instead of setting my behind behind a desk to write, I grab a trilogy from my bookshelf to read. Money must be earned and food must be cooked and loved ones must be held. Any reading (or any hobby) that is put before these necessities is escapism.

So, what about the young Harry Potter fan? Has he moved from escape to escapism? After all, he owns a wand and a robe and he casts spells at passersby.

Maybe St. Paul can help here: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

We can hope that one day the robe will be hung in a closet, the wand placed in a drawer, and the spells no longer cast. But may we also hope that the boy’s love of reading will be carried long into manhood, for there is nothing childish nor escapist about enjoying a good story.

The Path

Knife-edge peaks and ephemeral creeks

Behind, before, beside.

Two gashed knees and sole-blistered feet

Dot and dash and stumble:

 

            Please

            Move. As

            Though motion

            And progress are

            The same.

 

Regardless of geography –

A muddy knee or cold mountain or dry valley –

The difference lies between one and two.

Is it me? or me and you?

Weather-Watching

I live in a community of weather-watchers. Before the sun stirs and its pale light peers over the trees, they watch. After the barn owl swallows the skin and bones of her midnight meal, they worry. When a trip to town leads to meeting a fellow weather-watcher, they talk. They watch and they worry and they talk about the rain or the heat or the cold or the drought. They watch, worry, and talk because they must plan.

 

Their plans have four parts- one for each season of the year. The details of the weeks and the days are filled in as they come, of course, but there always arises an inscrutable problem. A butterfly flaps her wings in an exotic country, and the reverberations shake off a chunk of ice from an arctic glacier. Then, a storm smashes into the Canadian coast until slow-moving rain clouds swing south. Such is the delicately complex spectacle known as the weather, and with a bone-deep intensity these weather-watchers want to look behind an impenetrable curtain.

 

A few seasons ago, a grey-haired weather-watcher sat quietly in his square-bodied pickup while a field flooded. He had bought the field around the time the first man walked on the moon, and after a decade it helped him buy another. Ninety-nine acres, once the site of sleepy sowing and sweaty reaping, transformed into a swamp. It was a loss that meant more losses. Professional weather-watchers, with half-hidden grins, declared the three-day event to be a “thousand-year flood” and thought themselves lucky to study such a piece of meteorological history, when a stalled frontal boundary met waves of moist air. The grey-haired weather-watcher, with a half-hidden smile, sat with his wife and pondered the mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Why Literature?

One of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words, “Tell me a story” – Leland Ryken (2000, Windows to the World)

As time has passed and as technology has progressed, we’ve used different forms- from fireside tales to films- to express our love for story-telling. However, one form of storytelling deserves a prominent place in our lives: creative literature.

 

A trip to the grocery store or a wait at the doctor’s office reveal the abundance of blue-lit screens constantly projecting bundles of pixels at us. Recent innovations in technology have changed the way people play, read, watch, work, and build relationships, to the point that one commentator has called this the “age of digital addiction” (“Digital Fatigue” Publisher’s Weekly, Oct. 2016). Digital media have crept into spaces once occupied by poetry, short stories, and novels; The digital media monster casts a growing shadow over literature and vies for students’ time in composition classrooms, where students are losing altogether their interest in reading (ibid). In short, the blue allure of the screen means that watching is eclipsing reading. Literature needs defending, and one of the best places to begin is by remembering its value.

 

Literature is valuable because it can creatively explore and convey meaning while engaging the reader. This engagement is part of the writer-reader interaction: writers have something they want to say to others, and readers want to interact with what writers share (Ryken, Windows).

 

But what is distinctive about creative literature that makes it valuable and worth defending? At least two things unite us all: a longing for beauty and an understanding of the human experience. As the well-known author C.S. Lewis recognized, “we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as our own” (An Experiment in Criticism). Literature expands our understanding by introducing us to a variety of perspectives (“seeing with other eyes”). It is a window through which we can look at beauty and enjoy imaginative depictions of life. Further, creative verse and prose require us to be active during the storytelling process (unlike the passive watching of digital media) as our mind works to re-create the action and images generated by the author’s words. In this way, the best literature reaches the center of our being so that it sticks with us long after we put the book (or tablet) down.

 

Literature is also valuable because it can lead us to truth by creative means. We arrive at knowledge of reality through our five senses and through rational thinking, and such knowledge can be expressed in two types of language: literary and non-literary. To borrow a distinction from Leland Ryken, literary language loves the quality of an experience, and involves imaginative storytelling and concrete diction. Non-literary language focuses on the quantity of an experience by categorizing it in abstract terms. Such writing appeals to our intellect and tends to ignore our imagination and emotions. Both types of language are important, of course, but literary language helps us search for beauty, wrestle with questions of good and evil, and express love in ways beyond the limits of non-literary language.

 

Ultimately, its potential for beauty, its imaginative depictions of experience, and its ability to express truth, show that creative literature deserves a special place in our lives and is worth defending for ages to come.

The Lift

A bell rings and

a gap widens

and slow strings

sweetly whisper

 

An upward glance

meets two smiles

– neither showing recognition –

the second assuring

this is genuine

 

The first

a wall of brilliant white

wreathed in red.

The second

a gentle gleam in a swirl of brown,

such depths that centuries

of exploration cannot sound.

 

“Miss, this fortunate meeting

should not pass unmarked.

May I have the mercy

of knowing your name?”

 

Dizzy words, thought

but unsaid.

Instead, a dry mouth remains gaped

until scattered senses regroup

and organize a hopeful shape-

but late!

 

Alone with the delicate scent of cedar and rose…

The bell rings and the doors close and slow strings sadly quiver

 

Mercy, Lord, on a fool

who stood stunned before one

sent to steady his pilgrim soul

on the long walk Home