blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.
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things I dig right at this moment

Every so often (okay, pretty often) my brain is too scattered to produce a unified blog post, but I can still manage to make a list of disunified things I’m thinking about.  Here is one such list: Things I Dig Right at This Moment.

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs I showed this to my children’s lit students this morning, and I was reminded once again of how much sense this makes.  (Maslow’s basic argument is that the bottom levels of the hierarchy are necessary in order to achieve the higher levels.)  It applies to so many situations: the difficulty abused and neglected kids have in school, the poor work output of people who aren’t getting enough sleep, the writer’s block I get when I’m worried about other things (hey, didn’t I just mention that?).  It even explains the phenomenon of being hangry.  Sure, there are amazing stories about people who aren’t getting their foundational needs fulfilled (such as concentration camp victims) who nevertheless achieve the highest level of the pyramid by creating beautiful works of art or performing heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but what makes those stories so amazing is their rarity.  They are the exception that proves the rule.
  2. The emoji with no mouth. You’ve seen it: It’s a smiley face, minus the smile.  And yet it’s so eloquent.  I use it to mean “There are no words”–a phrase which, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, applies to so many situations.
  3. To Kill a MockingbirdI finished rereading this classic yesterday, and I was confirmed in my opinion that Scout Finch is one of the greatest narrators, and Atticus one of the greatest dads, of all time.  Very few books juxtapose humor and danger (recall that Scout is wearing a ham costume throughout the climactic scene), wisdom and innocence (Atticus’s words interpreted through the child Scout’s limited understanding and recalled from the adult Scout’s perspective) in such an effective way.  And the evocative descriptions—the humid warmth of a summer evening, the cracks in a sidewalk that has a tree root pushing through it—take me back to my own childhood, even though mine wasn’t spent in Alabama.
  4. The Grey Havens. My friend told me about this band Saturday morning, I impulse-bought their album Ghost of a King for $10 on iTunes without sampling it first, and I ended up listening to it over and over while driving that day.  Although their style is a little inconsistent (fluctuating from the folksy and dramatic sound of Mumford and Sons to a poppier but still substantial sound that reminds me of Imagine Dragons), I don’t mind that because I like both kinds of music, and their themes are consistent.  This is Christian music that doesn’t advertise itself as such.  On Ghost of a King, without using the names “God” or “Jesus,” they pretty much outline the whole history of the Bible, hitting the major points of creation, fall, and redemption.  My favorite song on that album is “Diamonds and Gold,” definitely on the pop/electronic end and very fun to dance to in the car (and probably out of the car, too).
  5. using flavored cream cheese as a dip for pretzels. Last night I used the Philadelphia brand roasted vegetable cream cheese as a comparatively “healthy” Super Bowl “dip.”  (Oh, my gosh.  Philadelphia.  I just made the connection.  I am the reason they won.)  Today, I polished off the rest of a tub of honey pecan cream cheese (also Philadelphia) as a lunch snack at work.  Seriously, this is good.  You should try it.

What are you digging right now?  Let me know in the comments.

motif or obsession

This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen.  Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.

I drew this guy:

I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear.  His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.

When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he.  He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel.  Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny.  Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward.  Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.

There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile.  The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations.  Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother.  This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian.  But the basic character was still there.

At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian.  But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.

Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful.  He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him.  (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.)  He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings.  Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around.  He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him.  Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore.  And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif.  I think Sam may be an obsession.  I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above.  I kind of have a crush on him.  I know, it’s weird.  But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean?  Please share.

the greatest showmen

In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented ChristmasStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman.  I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t.  I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).

The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman).  Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all.  Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer.  In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol.  While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life.  As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point.  The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens.  (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.)  I wish this movie had received wider release.

The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype.  I suppose one would call it a bio-musical.  The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy.  The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams.  But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks.  The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers.  They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard.  They were going to see a bearded lady, period.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens.  Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers.  Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent.  Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis.  It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus.  I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America.  I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.

I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned.  Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.

 

People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

Don’t try to do everything–but do something.

Last year, I enjoyed writing an Advent-themed post for each Monday leading up to Christmas (and I hope you enjoyed reading them), so I’ll be doing it again this year.  Christmas Day is a Monday this year, and I plan to post as usual!

Today, I want to give you a life hack from The Girl Who Tries to Do Everything.  Ever since Facebook started suggesting events in my area (sometime this past summer, I think), I’ve become obsessed with marking myself “Interested” in as many events as possible.  They all look so fun!  The events I actually show up to comprise, predictably, only a small percentage of the ones I star.  Also predictably, the number of suggested events that look really fun has increased sharply with the onset of the Christmas season.  And also predictably, I didn’t go to a single one of the events I was supposedly interested in this past weekend.  But I did have a lovely time at home decorating my tree, writing Christmas cards, listening to the same Christmas albums I always listen to, and drinking way too much hot chocolate.  So here’s my advice: Don’t try to go to every event and participate in every activity that comes to your attention this Christmas season.  But, conversely, don’t let your inability to do everything paralyze you into inaction.  Do a few meaningful things that make you happy–which may not be the same as mine.

Here are some things I’ve decided to do this month:

  1. Go see ONE Christmas play/show/concert: A friend of mine is stage-managing a production of White Christmas, and since I know that I love this story and its music (here is a post that addresses an interesting sartorial question from the film), I know that attending the show will be worth my time.  Accordingly, I’ve already bought myself a ticket and put it on my calendar.
  2. Pick ONE recipe to take to parties: Fortunately, several of the Christmas parties I’m attending this month are catered or at a restaurant.  But for those parties where I’m excepted (or feel obligated) to contribute food, I’m not trying a different ambitious recipe for each one; I’m making festively-shaped sugar cookies.  That’s it.  I do love to cook and bake–you know that if you read my blog regularly–but I can get serious burnout at this time of year if I’m not careful.  By reserving my cooking/baking powers, I should have enough motivation to contribute quite a bit to my family’s holiday meals at the end of the month.
  3. Look at Christmas lights: Along with listening to music, it’s one of the only forms of holiday entertainment that is free and can be done on the way to something else.  My neighborhood is making a solid showing this year, so all I need to do in order to infuse a bit of Christmas cheer into my day is take a slightly different route to my house.
  4. Make every moment special: That sounds like it belongs on an especially cheesy greeting card, but it’s actually quite practical advice.  In December, if I’m sitting down to grade papers or read a book, I plug in my Christmas tree, light all my candles (and there are a lot–I like to pretend I have a fireplace), put on some Christmas music, and make some hot chocolate in one of my festive mugs.  So I’m celebrating Christmas even when I’m not celebrating Christmas.
  5. Spend time with people: I’ve made it sound like I’m doing all of this alone, and I certainly do enjoy hibernating in my house.  But this year, I had friends over to help decorate my Christmas tree, and even though I didn’t attend any of those events I starred this past weekend, I did spend some time with people each day.  Because in the end, what we do is less important than who we do it with.  And that’s sappy, but I can say it because it’s Christmas.

Silobration: more than just a lot of shiplap

This past weekend, I traveled with my mother and sister to Waco, Texas for Silobration 2017, a festival marking the third anniversary of Magnolia Market at the Silos, the anchor location of the home decor and lifestyle empire of HGTV it couple Chip and Joanna Gaines.  Waco is a small city that seems to be in the middle of economic revitalization, surely due in large part to the jobs created and tourism attracted by the Silos and other businesses that would not exist if not for Fixer Upper–such as Harp Design Co., a boutique in a residential part of town that probably has never been fashionable.  Waco is in what used to be (and maybe still is, though I didn’t see much evidence of it other than a ton of hamburger joints) cattle country, in the middle of the rural space between Dallas and Austin.  The city is home to Baylor University, museums about Texas Rangers, prehistoric mammoths, and Dr. Pepper (which was invented in Waco), and what used to be, a long time ago, the tallest building west of the Mississippi (the Alico building familiar to those who watch Fixer Upper).  Yet none of those attractions–even at the now-past height of the Baylor football program–could bring in a crowd the size of what we saw this past weekend.

Why did all these people stand in the blazing heat to wait in line for cupcakes at the bakery, push through crowds in the Magnolia Market itself to buy #shiplap t-shirts, and stand on tiptoe during Friday and Saturday nights’ concerts to see Chip and Joanna on stage?  Something about this couple–their laid-back yet charming aesthetic, their work ethic, their countercultural emphasis on family and hospitality–has struck a chord with Americans of a surprisingly wide range of ages, ethnicities, and styles.  (And there were a lot of men there too.)  I’m not going to wear a t-shirt that says, “Love me like Chip loves Jo” (I saw several of those on people, though it wasn’t sold in the store), but I am on the Magnolia bandwagon.  And if nothing else, I’d like to go back to get another grilled cheese sandwich from the Cheddarbox food truck permanently stationed behind the Market.  I think grilled cheese is a bandwagon we can all get on.