I believe in America.

Because it’s the Fourth of July, and because I indicated last week that I’d be writing about the Godfather trilogy again, I titled my post with the first line of the first film.  In the opening scene, a minor character whose daughter was assaulted by two young men, who were given what he sees as a lenient penalty, is asking Don Vito to help him avenge her.  Fascinatingly, he begins with this qualification, following it up with “I have raised my daughter in the American way.”  It’s like he feels compelled to defend his chosen country before he goes on to express his frustration with its (in his perception) slow, unfair, and heartless (that is, emotionless) justice system–especially for immigrants like himself.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Godfather trilogy, in addition to being an amazing family saga, is a story about the Italian-American immigrant experience in the 20th century.  But right now I want to focus on those interesting opening words: “I believe in America.”  If you insert the name of another, older nation in that sentence, it doesn’t sound right.  You can love (for example) England, but you probably wouldn’t say that you believe in it.  That’s because America is an experiment, and on the timeline of world history, it’s still a relatively new one.  Another family/political drama I enjoy watching, the AMC show Turn: Washington’s Spies (as in George Washington), makes clear just how close this experiment came to never even getting off the ground.  So if I say that I believe in America, I’m implying that I’m rooting for the American experiment to turn out okay–and that I’m still waiting to see the outcome.

That’s why it’s possible to be a loyal American and still acknowledge times when the experiment has gone off track (and, at risk of getting slightly political here, I would say that immigration, in general, has been one of those areas where America’s efforts have often been clumsy).  In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative to acknowledge those times if you’re a person who truly loves and believes in America and wants what’s best for it.  This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of days ago in which I was trying to explain Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to a friend.  I started by saying that it’s not a patriotic song, and I would still say that it’s not, if by “patriotic” you mean uncritically proud of America.  But I concluded by saying that it’s also not an anti-American song.  For all of its references to the ugly, confusing war in Vietnam and the hardships of growing up in working-class East Coast towns where the factories are closing down, that song really isn’t saying “America is great” or “America is bad.”  It’s just saying, “Living in America is hard,” which is the same as saying, “Life is hard.”

Of course, I need to qualify what I just said by adding that there are a lot of countries where life is a lot harder than it is in America.  Nobody can deny that our standard of living here (and I’m not just talking about money, though that’s certainly part of it) is much higher than in most of the world, and we’re foolish if we’re not grateful for that.  But we should also acknowledge that America is a really big country, so my American experience is not going to be the same as yours.  And for some, life here isn’t easy.

So, America–I believe in you, and I’m cheering for you.  And I’m thankful that I’m allowed to speak up when I think you’ve made a mistake.  But I think you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

my favorite fictional couples that never happened

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and some of you may be feeling like your true Valentine is out there somewhere (maybe in a very specific location whose exact address or coordinates you know) and just hasn’t found his or her way to you yet.  This is kind of the way I feel about Tom Hiddleston, and I now know, since I read that article about him in GQ that came out last week, which part of London he lives in.  (Like Charles Dickens, he comes straight outta Camden.)  In honor of all of you who are feeling frustrated in love, here are a few fictional couples who never get together despite my best shipping efforts.

  1. the unnamed narrator and Frank Crawley in Rebecca.  *spoilers ahead* My book club just read this 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I described it as “creepy Downton Abbey,” so if you like stories about rich people with no jobs, and their household staff who know way too much about the family, you will probably enjoy this book.  (I also thought the writing style was beautiful, the setting haunting, and the human psychology spot-on.)  I had several theories about what was going to happen in this book, some of which were based on superficial resemblances to Jane Eyre, and all of which turned out to be wrong.  The theory that I clung to the hardest was that the narrator’s husband, Maxim, was going to either go to jail or get the death penalty for having killed his first wife, the narrator was going to realize that he never really loved her but was just using her to try to have a normal life, and she was going to end up with the longsuffering and loyal estate agent Frank Crawley, whom I pictured as the subdued and diplomatic Tom Branson of the later seasons of Downton Abbey.  It just seemed so clear to me that the narrator was much more comfortable around Frank than around her preoccupied and moody husband.  I went so far as to go back and make sure the first chapter, which occurs chronologically at the end of the story, didn’t have any proper nouns in it–“We thought she was talking about Maxim, but she could have been talking about Frank!”  I was wrong; she stuck with the wife-killer.  Poor Frank.
  2. Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.  I’ve read Markus Zusak’s remarkable Holocaust-era novel in two different book clubs, and both times some people, including myself, have stated that we wished Liesel, the book thief, and Max, the young Jewish man who hid in Liesel’s family’s basement, had gotten together at the end.  I get all the reasons why that relationship wouldn’t work: he’s older (not that much older, though); she sees him as a brother; it’s not really a book about romantic relationships, but at the same time Liesel will always carry a torch for Rudy.  I do get all that, but I can’t stand to think of Max being all alone for the rest of his life.  Liesel, we learn, marries some random guy and ends up having a bunch of grandchildren, so I’m not worried about her.  But Max is such a lonely figure throughout the book–he arrives alone; he leaves alone; he has to stay in the basement when everyone else is going to the air-raid shelter.  It breaks my heart to think he’ll have to stay that way forever.  He made you a book, Liesel.  Did your random guy do that?
  3. Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Speaking of the trope of marrying a random-guy-ex-machina, I’m sure I’m not the only Harry Potter fan who used to think it was a total copout when J.K. Rowling declared that Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, ended up marrying some guy named Rolf Scamander.  Now that I know and love Newt Scamander, I guess I’m okay with Luna marrying his grandson.  But still, like everyone else, I wanted her to get together with Neville.  And yet, there’s a part of me that also thinks Harry and Luna would have been a great couple.  I think she would have helped him not to take himself so seriously, and he would have helped her get some street cred at Hogwarts (not that Luna cares what people think of her).  They have some sweet exchanges in the books (like when Luna tells Harry about her faith that she’ll see her mother again) and the movies (like when Luna says that hanging out with Harry is “kind of like being with a friend,” and Harry says, “I am your friend, Luna”), and I think this mutual kindness and confidence could have gone somewhere romantic.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in shipping.  Meanwhile, don’t forget that chocolate goes on clearance February 15!

some random questions for Christmas

In which I interview myself.

If you could design a Christmas t-shirt, what would it say?  Bob Cratchit: Straight Outta Camden.

If you could spend Christmas with any fictional family, what family would you choose?  I borrowed this question from another blog I looked at over the weekend, but it’s something I’ve thought about before–not that I had to think very hard.  The only correct answer to this question (and a total no-brainer if you’ve been reading my blog over the years) is “the Weasleys.”  However, I did see Fantastic Beasts again today, and I have to say that if for some reason I couldn’t Apparate across the Atlantic for Christmas, it would also be fun to spend Christmas with Tina and Queenie Goldstein–if Newt and Jacob could also be there, and if we could have pie and strudel.

What holiday season song bothers you the most?  Please indulge me in a rant on this one.  I am deeply troubled by the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  It used to bother me because although it gets classified as a Christmas song, it’s merely a cold weather song.  People in Australia could sing it in August.  But then someone pointed out to me that this song appears to describe a man keeping a woman in his home against her will.  You can call it an attempt at date rape or a hostage situation–either way, there’s nothing cute or clever about it, and it really annoys me that singers who think they are cute and clever are still covering it.  You can try to explain the lyrics away as the product of a simpler time, but what are you going to do with the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”?  Slipping drugs into a person’s beverage was never okay.

Let me contrast this song with another one that presents a similar scenario: “Let It Snow.”  In this song, the two characters appear to be mutually consenting adults who actually like each other, unlike in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and they face a far more challenging weather prognosis (cold is only dangerous if you have to spend the whole night outside, whereas snow can cause decreased visibility and hazardous road conditions).  Yet, after a nice evening enjoying popcorn in front of the fire, one of them is mature enough to say, “I’ve had a lovely time, but I am now going to get in my four-wheel drive vehicle and safely drive home before this snow gets worse.  How about you give me a big kiss and a hug to keep me warm on my way?”  Yes, the line “The fire is slowly dying, and my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing” may indicate a reluctance to part, but again, this reluctance seems to be mutual.  There is no coercion here, nor any guilt-tripping.  (Contrast this with the part in “Cold” when the man says, “Think of my lifelong sorrow.”  Gag me.)

(takes a deep breath) Okay, we can move on to the next question.

What charming Christmas comedy have you discovered in recent years?

How did you know I’d recently discovered a charming Christmas comedy?  Well, last year I came across Nativity! in which Martin Freeman plays a put-upon grade-school teacher directing a nativity play that gets way out of hand.  Martin Freeman is delightful as always (I think I’ve used that exact same adjective to describe him at least once before on this blog), and the kids, who seem to be “real” people rather than actors, are hilarious.  So is Mr. Poppy, the teacher’s aide who is basically a child himself.  Check this one out.

 

Advent week 4: What Christmas hymns teach us about Jesus

Something that always kind of shocks me is the number of straight-up hymns (multiple verses!) that get played on the radio during the Christmas season–and I’m talking on your average pop/soft rock “mix” station.  I’m happy that Jesus’ name is getting so broadly proclaimed during this time, even if it’s confusingly thrown in with a lot of really stupid songs (which I plan to post about next week), but I wonder how many people understand the sometimes complex theology they’re hearing.  Today I want to write about just a few of the things we learn about Jesus from some of the great Christmas hymns.

  1. Jesus is God, and he didn’t stop being God when he was born as a human.  Appropriately, Christmas hymns are packed with statements of the divinity of Christ.  Some go a little too far in asserting this, like “Away in a Manger” (“no crying he makes”?  He was a baby; pretty sure he was crying), but others hit the mark in beautiful statements like “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity” (from my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) or simply “the Word made flesh” (a direct quote from the gospel of John, found in a later verse of “What Child Is This”).
  2. Jesus knows what it’s like to be us.  Also appropriately, many Christmas hymns are about God the Son’s humbling himself to dwell with us (any song with “Emmanuel” in it counts here) and his sympathy with our pain and frailty.  “O Holy Night” says that Jesus was “born to be our friend” and then goes on to say that “he knows our need / to our weakness is no stranger.”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is, again, a little more complex: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  All the songs that talk about Jesus’ humble surroundings at his birth also fit in here; one of my favorite descriptions is from the beautiful Appalachian song “I Wonder As I Wander”: “When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow stall / With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.”  Farmers–that word choice brings the story close to home for a lot of people.  Jesus could have been born down the road from here.
  3. Jesus is coming back to rule the world.  As my pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one of the best-loved hymns of Christmas, “Joy to the World,” is actually, for the most part, about Jesus’ future second coming.  We see this especially in the last verse, which begins, “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”  Of course, this is also what Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus is about.  The other day, it occurred to me that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there probably were some lords and at least one king in the audience, which makes the repeated line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” all the more impressive.  In fact, according to legend, it was a king who started the tradition of standing up during the chorus.  Wikipedia says this story probably isn’t true, but what’s not in doubt is that Jesus is superior to all “principalities and powers” as the New Testament says.

I hope that over the next few days, you hear some of these songs (maybe on one of those normally lightweight radio stations) and maybe even get to join a congregation in singing them.  As you sing, think about the words and what they tell us about Jesus, our God, friend, and king.

Advent week 3: Christmas rituals

Last week, actual tears came to my eyes while I was writing my blog post, and I don’t feel like going through that emotional wringer again (plus I can’t think of anything profound to say this week), so I’m going to write about something more fun.  But first, I have to tell you about a book I checked out of my church library.  It’s called Simply SenseSational Christmas.  The title, interestingly enough, isn’t the cheesiest thing about the book.  Let’s just say that it savors strongly of the 1990s, when it was published.  But although the hip DIY bloggers of 2016 might sneer at much of this book’s aesthetic, its central points are perhaps more relevant than ever: 1. Christmas is about the time when God was born in a stable, so stop stressing yourself out trying to have the perfect showplace home, and 2. Appealing to all five physical senses is possibly the best way to create a memorable, delightful, and even worshipful experience for yourself and your loved ones at Christmas.  The book goes on to offer simple strategies like scattering a handful of cloves around candles so that they give off a spicy, festive scent when they get warm.  This might not be life-changing stuff–then again, it might.

This book has got me thinking about some of the rituals, most if not all of them involving the physical senses, that I enjoy in my own home each Christmas.  This is the second Christmas I’ve spent in my house.  Before that, I was renting an apartment, and while I enjoyed some Christmas rituals there too, there’s something special about celebrating in one’s very own home.  (I also enjoy a number of Christmas rituals in my parents’ house, where I always spend the actual day of Christmas and usually the week or so before and after it, but those aren’t the subject of this post.)  Here are some of them.

  1. I have a number of Christmas albums in my iTunes library, including some that I’ve been listening to with my family since childhood (The New Young Messiah) and some that I’ve acquired in recent years (Christmas at the Renaissance Fair by Moat Jumper–exactly what it sounds like).  I start listening to these while I’m decorating on December 1, and I usually get through the whole collection about three times during the Christmas season.  I also have some individual Christmasy tracks from other albums that I include in the rotation, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” and John Williams’s “Christmas at Hogwarts” from the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack.  I also like to listen to the Nutcracker suite on record #12 of the Festival of Light Classical Music record collection I bought at Goodwill last year for $2.50.
  2. I light candles like a pyromaniac all year, but at Christmas, it really gets out of hand.  I go through tealights like my family goes through toilet paper at a large gathering.  The last year I lived in the apartment, my neighbor made me a lovely set of candleholders created from upside-down stemware decorated to look like Santa Claus, a snowman, and other festive characters.  I also have a balsam-and-cedar scented large Yankee jar candle that almost compensates for the fact that my 1.5 trees (I have a big one in the living room and a little one in my home office) are artificial.  My Pier One Holiday Forest room spray, a gift from a friend last year, also helps.
  3. I love mail.  I check my mailbox obsessively on Saturdays when I’m home to check it, and I actually have a real honest-to-goodness pen pal.  So it’s no surprise that I enjoy sending Christmas cards.  I love writing in them (even if it’s just a simple “Love, Tess”), sticking Christmas seals on the envelopes, and putting a big fat stack of them out in the mailbox.  In turn, when I receive Christmas cards, I hang them with tiny clothespins on twine in the corner of my entryway.  It’s an easy and beautiful decoration, especially when I get cards with gold on the front, which catch the light from my many candles and my tree lights.

I could go on–I haven’t said a word about food–but I think you get the idea.  These rituals are so common as to sound almost banal, but they’re meaningful to me.  I’m sure you have some that are meaningful to you.  Feel free to share in the comments!