Jumping Into My Bookbag of Tricks

I recently finished three books that completely knocked my socks off, all for the same reason: they are superbly written stories that unveil the beauty and fragility of the human heart. Although one's fiction, one's spiritual autobiography, and one's a social work memoir, these books transcend genres by demonstrating that a well-told story that dignifies the spirit in us and others has the power to not only captivate but also help us better embody our own humanity.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is the story of two boys, Amir and Hassan, who grow up in Afghanistan. Although they come from two very different social classes -- Amir's father is wealthy, and Hassan's father is a servant in Amir's home -- the two boys are best friends. However, where Hassan is as innocent as a dove, Amir is watchful and possessive, particularly of his father's affection, which does not flow down to him freely. And on one particular afternoon, when Amir has an opportunity to rescue Hassan from one of the most vulnerable circumstances a young boy could possibly endure, Amir chooses to run away and leave his small friend alone.

It is a decision that haunts Amir the rest of his life. And when we meet him in adulthood, he is presented with an opportunity to atone for his sin. The only question is, does he yet have what it takes to take a stand, to be loyal, to exert himself beyond his own pain, even if it will ultimately cost him his life?

I don't know how to communicate with enough force the importance of this book. Not only is it a masterpiece in the art of storytelling, with layers upon layers folding and unfolding upon themselves with such skill and dexterity that it makes you gawk in amazement, but it tears your heart open at what we as humans have the power to do to one another, and how utterly vulnerable are the innocents. Hassan's innocence and loyalty and trust, in particular, captivated my heart and made me love him deeply; I felt the same tender affection and protectiveness toward his son, Sohrab, later in the book. But there were other times I wanted to throw the book as far across the room as possible, either because of Amir's despicable actions (or inactions) or because of the positive ugliness of human evil. This story maintains a constant tension between the delicate and the forceful, the beautiful and the ugly, the redemptive and the damned, with a final culmination that builds with greater and greater intention into events positively heartbreaking and full.

I'm kicking myself for having waited so long to read this book, because it is one of the finest novels I have ever read in my life. I mean that sincerely. It will get inside your soul and eat you up. It will make your heart explode. It will make you weep again and again and again. It will spend you. I do hope you decide to read this book someday, if you haven't already. And I would love to hear your thoughts on it when you do.

The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

As I shared in a previous post, Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a book that found me, quite unexpectedly, in a Borders bookstore. In my original post, I shared that I thought this book might be important for me at this time in my life, and I believe I now know why.

Armstrong's story is many things. It is the story of someone who wanted to find God so badly that she went searching for him inside convent walls, only to learn that God was not found in strictures and the flagellation of the self. It is the story of someone learning how to live outside convent walls and outside the life of faith. It is the story of someone who thinks academia can save her, only to find herself eventually cast outside its walls, too.

It is the story of someone searching for a life. It is the story of someone finding a life. It is the story of someone struggling for many years through a misdiagnosed illness, and it is the story of someone eventually moving back toward the idea of God, though from quite an unconventional vantage point.

I really resonated with many of these searches of Armstrong's life, but what struck me most forcibly about this book is that it is also the story of the tenderness of the human heart and why it must be treated with care above all else -- why it must be given room to breathe and have full life or it will die. Much of Armstrong's painful experience of the Catholic convent concerned the rigidity, the rules, the fastidiousness, and the uncompromising obedience she was forced to give in questionable circumstances without being given the privilege of a question. She makes repeated pleas for love, for affection, for understanding, and for God, only to receive in return closed doors, closed lips, and closed hearts. She is dismissed as dramatic and dangerous. She is left completely alone.

My own heart broke for Armstrong many times as I saw the many instances where the opportunity for true life was there, right within reach, and could have been had through the simple attempt of another human being to understand and receive and love her, right where she was, and yet how each human being chose instead to turn away. There seemed to be a treacherous fear of reality behind the eyes of each of those people.

I read this book while staying at a monastery in Santa Barbara, California. It was a quiet space to contemplate these themes concerning the human heart, honesty, and understanding. As I read, I felt a tremendous roar welling up inside of me to protect and defend the hearts of other human beings, to allow them room to speak their truth, no matter how scary they have feared that truth may be, even if such truth has been hidden for years behind masks and rage. It is my conviction that the love of Christ is found in such unguarded moments and in such merciful places. I guess you could say that my compassion for Armstrong and my rage at what harm she received from so many different outlets was simply a confirmation of my own calling.

This book was also a teacher for me. Many times I watched Armstrong reach a crossroads in her life, either through circumstance or relationship, and then watched her look introspectively inside herself to decide who she was going to be, separate from anyone else's dictation. Sometimes, when accused of wrongdoing or exaggeration, she went deeper inside herself to consider ways she may have been wrong, or what part was hers to own in some mishap. I really respected these qualities in her, the willingness to carve her own path and the openness to consider her own fallacy, especially in a time when I am learning to speak my own truth and to own my own life. This book, probably without the author's intention, taught me much about personal boundaries.

And finally, this book challenged me. When I spoke of it in my previous post, many of you indicated an interest in learning where Armstrong lands spiritually by the end of the book. The book is very much an excavation of her own appraisal of that question through an approximately 30-year journey. After leaving the convent, she stands on the fringes of Catholicism, simply because it is all she knows. Then she brazenly rejects it for a very long season. Religion becomes an intellectual pursuit only, and she finds much to criticize in the Christian faith. But slowly, slowly, she begins to contemplate God and His real presence again.

For those looking for a final-page conversion story back to Christianity, I'm sorry to say you will not find that here. Armstrong embraces the Abrahamic faiths -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- as equals and more symbolic than true. What you will find, however, is something somewhat remarkable in its own right. Because Armstrong met with so much personal injustice in her own life, saw the effects of hard-heartedness and an unwillingness to listen and receive vulnerable pilgrims in their quests for love and understanding through the unfolding of her own story, the momentum of this theme builds through the book until it makes perfect sense that she ultimately embraces something which she calls the science of compassion: a so-high regard for the dignity of other human beings that it asks for our sincere attempt to get inside their skin, to see the world from their eyes so that we can truly understand and receive them where they are.

I found this idea marvelous on one hand, because I think it is the true spirit of Christ. It also mirrors much of my own conviction about the need for compassion and the dignity of the human heart. However, it also lands Armstrong eventually at her own conviction that no human being can proclaim to have knowledge of any supreme truth of one religion above another, which challenges me because I subscribe to the Christian faith as a true representation of reality. Her movement from compassion to this rejection of any overarching religious truth forced me to consider how my own zeal for compassionate love does not land me where she does. This is a complicated question I have not fully wrestled to the ground. Even so, hers is a superbly told story that is very real and worth reading, and which ends with some strong roots shooting down into true and beautiful places, even if not fully mirroring my own perspective on reality.

One Small Boat by Kathy Harrison

I picked up One Small Boat quite by accident two weeks ago when browsing the bargain racks at Borders. I was drawn to the cover (isn't it cute?) and then to the title and subtitle: One Small Boat: The Story of a Little Girl, Lost Then Found. Wow. Compelling.

It didn't take much more to hook me. The jacket copy described a five-year-old girl named Daisy who showed up on the author's doorstep in need of care. Harrison, who with her husband is a long-time foster care parent, has seen almost everything in her twenty-year tenure, yet Daisy's case is unique. She barely eats. She doesn't speak. She flaps and spins. And what's more, her family doesn't fit the usual demographic.

Yet what happens under Harrison's roof in the name of Daisy's healing is nothing short of miraculous. Here, she learns to eat real food. Here, she begins to smile. Here, she starts to communicate. Here, she begins to shine.

I am not a parent, nor do Kirk and I have plans to ever be. So why was I so taken with this book? Why did I carry it with me everywhere I went in this past week? I finally realized that it came down to this: the sheer vulnerability of a life, how it can be broken in such young places, and how healing is found in love, in safety, in trust, in strength, in softness, in grace, in the arms of a human touch. This book will break your heart and make you laugh. It will amaze you and astound you. It will make you shake your head and it will make you yell out loud. You will wish to God the story wasn't true. But you will also give great thanks that it is.

The Spiral Staircase

After spending this past week busy with family and friends -- coffee with Kate (twice!), Joan of Arcadia episode fests with Mom, helping to decorate the family Christmas tree, silliness with You Tube videos with my brother and his fiancee, a blessedly full eight-hour day of conversation with Sara, Christmas at Mom's and Christmas at Dad's, plus introducing Kirk to my 30-plus-member extended family on Christmas night -- Kirk and I set off in my dad's truck this afternoon for a little bit of "us" time. Which led us promptly to our local Borders bookstore. (Of course.)

Kirk intended to pick up a few DVDs since they were having a 3-for-2 sale, but he didn't find what he was looking for. I intended to pick up the classic text on boundaries, since they've been on my mind of late and I think I'm moving into a new season of reestablishing more of them in my life. But along the way, I also picked up a book I didn't expect to find. It's called The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong.

I've seen Karen Armstrong's books around the bookstores for many years, and especially noticed them when I was managing a Barnes & Noble a handful of years ago. She's a guru on comparative religion, with books like A History of God and Islam: A Short History to her credit. For some reason, I have always shied away from her books, and I think this is because I have often confused her for Elaine Pagels, who writes often on the gnostic gospels and whom I therefore have not had much interest in reading.

But when I saw about seven copies of The Spiral Staircase on the shelf today, I picked it up. (As a former bookstore manager, I know seven copies of one book -- in paperback, no less -- equals something probably important, given how limited bookstore shelf space actually is.) I was intrigued by the subtitle's reference to the author's climb out of darkness, which was obviously spiritual in nature, given that the book was in the general religion section. But what specific kind of darkness, I wondered?

Then I read the back of the book, which shared that Armstrong entered a convent at age seventeen in 1962, eager to meet God . . . and left after seven years. The story contained in this book was about her journey into life once outside the convent walls, though it was a journey fraught with difficulty, disillusionment, confusion, illness, and pain. And yet, by the subtitle's promise, it was a journey out of darkness into light.

I sat down on a leather chair and began to read the preface, and I was hooked. She speaks disarmingly about her decision to enter the convent, about what she thought she would find and why she wanted to find it, and about the political tensions of the day, both within and without the Catholic church. Her words carry weight. And her willingness to share with boldness and honesty about the road she has walked, facing even the errors and the pain dead-on, sparing nothing, moved me.

Now I own the book and have just finished the preface. This feels like an important book in my life, in much the same way that Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk was important in my life several years ago. I am not exactly sure why this is so, but part of it may have to do with how one learns to have perspective about one's life. For instance, Armstrong shares in the preface that after writing her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, about those seven difficult years she spent as a nun, she published a second book about her first years outside the convent called Beginning the World that she now considers a mistake, saying, "It was far too soon to write about those years. . . . I was certainly not ready to see this phase of my life in perspective." The Spiral Staircase is her attempt to retell that story.

I guess what I love about finding this book is not just the chance to hear her story, which I find intensely interesting, but also how she learned to take a new perspective of her life as she grew through it, even sharing near the end of her preface that "we should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter." Fascinating. And somehow laced with grace.

My Life with Bloglines

About two months ago, I signed up for Bloglines. Have you heard of it? You probably have; I'm usually behind the times on most tech stuff. For instance, just last week Kirk and I had a conversation that went something like this:

"Do you think we should get iPods?"

"I don't know. It seems like the thing to do these days, doesn't it? Like, the way to keep up with music?"



"Seems like a lot of work, though, too. Downloading, syncing, memory space."



With no decision made, whatsoever. Oh, except for on Thursday, when Kirk reluctantly shared that he might like an iPod for Christmas . . . only to change his mind by evening's end.

So it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that most of you have been on Bloglines for years. But for me, it's a relatively new thing. (For those who don't know, Bloglines is an online service that tracks all your favorite blogs and news feeds in one place, so you don't have to visit each individual page to find the new content yourself.) And with two months of experience behind me now, I'm ready to share what I've learned.

I signed up for Bloglines for three reasons.

First, now that I have the lovely Mac to go along with our ancient and crotchety PC machine at home, it was becoming quite discomfiting to keep blog bookmarks current on both computers, especially as I continued to discover new blogs. Then factor in the additional challenge of keeping all those bookmarks in the same order on both computers so that my blog-browsing experience was consistent from computer to computer. (Anyone else out there feel strongly about reading blogs in a certain order? And changing this order as your interests change, even in the most subtle of ways?) I so appreciated that a Bloglines account would allow me to access all my favorite blogs in one place through an internet connection, no matter which computer I was using.

Second, I was becoming painfully aware of my world events illiteracy. Perhaps this awareness has heightened since we've gone without a television for six months, although I'll confess that I've never been good about keeping up with the news or reading the printed newspapers, even though I know I should. Or perhaps it was due to my finance class, where I showed up each morning only to realize that I had nothing to contribute to the daily discussion about current events in the financial sector. And with an election year upon us and the ever-increasing interplay of globalization on the economy and our daily lives, it seemed pretty lame to just keep sitting in the dark. I knew all the major news services provided free RSS feeds for their content, and Bloglines was a way for me to easily turn the lights back on.

Third, and probably most importantly, it was becoming just too time-consuming to run through every single bookmark on my toolbar several times each day to discover new content. The seconds it took to click on the bookmark toolbar, scroll to the next blog in line, wait for it to load on my screen, then check for any new content or any new comments, only to repeat the process again and again times the length of my bookmark blogroll really began to add up, especially, again, as I continued to discover new blogs to add to my list. I was becoming increasingly aware of just how much time I was devoting each day to checking my bookmarked blog lists.

Something had to be done. Enter Bloglines. Signup is free; all it requires is an e-mail address (which is your sign-in -- I've never gotten any actual e-mail from them). Once you sign up, you can subscribe to all the major newsfeeds already indexed by them. You can also download a button that gets installed on your bookmarks toolbar; anytime you visit a blog that you want to add to your Bloglines feed, you click on the bookmark button once you are on that blog's page and it automatically gets added to your feed.

The cool thing about Bloglines is how much time it saves. No longer must I visit each and every one of the blogs I love several times a day to check for new content; now I just wait for Bloglines to let me know when my favorite bloggers have posted. So easy!

Having this new system in place after a year and a half on the "old system" has made it easy for me to determine other highs and lows of this new Bloglines life.

First, the lows.

One downside is that when it comes to subscribing to news feeds, it is easy to fall way behind, way fast. I made the mistake of signing up for a variety of news feeds that Bloglines offers when you first open your account: I started with the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, and the BBC, not to mention Slate, Salon.com, and about ten pages of feeds within the New York Times itself (such as international news, business, technology, art, movies, literature, and opinion). I wanted to get as broad a spectrum of perspectives on the news as I possibly could, since I know each news service has its bias. But all of this was a mistake, at least for me.

Here's how it finally dawned on me: by thinking it through. I mean, news is breaking all the time, right? And in the electronic age, this means that news now gets transmitted instantly. That's why every time I checked my Bloglines account, it seemed my news feeds had ballooned like the Pillsbury Doughboy. And instead of simplifying my life, this part of the Bloglines experience began stressing me out. It made me feel constantly behind and like I was doing something wrong, not to mention revealing that what I really wanted to see when I opened my Bloglines account was not news updates but whether any of my favorite people had written anything new. If you ever take this route and discover yourself feeling the same way, I suggest that you do as I finally did and unsubscribe from those unending strings of feeds. I decided it was more worth it to check the news pages directly, at my own volition, rather than having it foisted on me the several times each day I checked Bloglines for a personal blog fix.

Another downside to the Bloglines life is that blogs can easily become "out of sight, out of mind." Once someone publishes a new post to their blog, a live link for that blog shows up in the left-hand column of your Bloglines page. When you click on that link, a new pane opens in the main section of your Bloglines screen that shows that blog's name and the new post's title. Then the live link in the left-hand column disappears, never to reappear until the blog author posts a new post. Out of sight, out of mind.

This can be particularly disorienting if you have been used to tracking not only new content but also comment threads, especially on blogs where the authors like to leave tagback comments for each commenter. I've had to adopt a hybrid system, making mental notes of the blogs I must remember to revisit once I leave a comment and then scrolling through my (woefully un-updated at this point) blog bookmark list on my hard drive over the next few days to re-check those blogs. This is quite an inefficient system on the back-end of the blog experience that doesn't entirely eradicate the problems at the heart of the first and third reasons I signed up for Bloglines in the first place.

Incidentally, Blogger has recently added the feature to request e-mail updates on comment threads for their blogs, but I've personally found this option cumbersome to my inbox when I've tried it. Another way to address this problem is within Bloglines itself. Bloglines offers the option to either display your entire list of feeds in the left-hand column (highlighting the blogs with new content in bold) or only the list of updated feeds that actually have new content. I've found that I prefer to list only the updated feeds because one of the reasons I subscribe to Bloglines is to save time. I like being able to see which blogs have new content in one split-second glance instead of having to scroll through my pushing-50 list of blog subscriptions to search for the boldfaced ones myself. In other words, I want Bloglines to work for me, not me for it. So for now, to keep my favorite blog authors from disappearing from my peripheral vision, I stick to my hybrid approach.

Another thing to expect when signing on for the Bloglines life is the learning curve of figuring out how you best like to experience each blog on your subscription list, and that's because you always have three options. First, you can choose to expand and read each new post right there on the Bloglines screen. This is great in a pinch and also works well for those blogs that don't foster an emotional connection for you. I tend to read news and business blogs this way because I subscribe to those feeds for information, not personal connection.

But when you do want a personal connection with the person via the look and feel of their blog, you have two choices. As I said earlier, clicking on the live link in the left-hand column will refresh your main Bloglines screen with that blog's name in large type and the new post's title below it. Both the blog's name and the post's title are live links, too. If you click directly on the post's title (instead of the plus sign right beside it, which is what expands the text within the Bloglines pane itself), a new window opens to display the static page for that post on the person's blog. Alternatively, clicking on the large type of the blog's name will open a new window that takes you to the main page of the blog itself.

It took me a while to realize that I almost unilaterally defer to this latter option of opening the main blog page on personal blogs because doing so allows me to feel like a continual part of the ongoing conversation that person is carrying. I can scroll down to check for updates on previous comment threads at the same time, and I feel a greater expansiveness by participating in the whole experience of the blog, rather than being limited to one post's static page. However, the static-page link can be a great option for those blogs that require you to scroll through quite a bit of information before getting to the new content, as it allows you to bypass that extraneous information completely. It's also great when it's a blog would normally choose to read in expanded form on the Bloglines screen but the blog author has selected not to make the full content of their posts available this way.

Another downside I've experienced, which may or may not be an issue for you and which really says more about my personal insecurities than any deficiency in Bloglines, is that living the Bloglines life makes you more aware of your own blog-related shortcomings. For instance, you begin to notice how frequently and faithfully certain bloggers post new content . . . and how infrequently and unfaithfully you do. Also, every time you look at a particular blog's newest post information in the main Bloglines screen, you are also presented with the number of subscriptions that blog currently carries. And if you subscribe to your own blog (as I do), it's tempting to feel a growing sense of your own insignificance when comparing your own blog's subscription base (2??) to that of others (36 . . . 51 . . . 456 . . . 5125?!).

One cool thing about Bloglines that I didn't expect is the way it helps you clarify your true blog-reading preferences. For instance, there are a number of blogs that have been sitting in my Bloglines feed for two weeks. I haven't clicked on them once. The number of new posts on those blogs just keeps growing, and still I do not click. It's revealing: I don't actually care what those bloggers have to say. Or for another example, I subscribed to a few new blogs that I thought I would really enjoy, only to discover that every time I got an updated feed for their blog, I dreaded clicking on it. Or I walked away from reading the new post feeling worse. At some point, I just get tired of feeling that initial dread or that bad feeling afterward. And guess what? Unsubscribing from those "boo blogs"* is just one painless click away. Bloglines makes it easy to wipe painful or discouraging blog-reading experiences out of your system entirely: just click on the latest live feed from that boo blog, click "unsubscribe" on the main Bloglines screen page once for that blog it loads, and you're done. Bad feelings, over.

I've listed a lot of up-and-down considerations from my personal Bloglines life, but I hope they will take some of the sting out of your own fledgling experience, should you decide to try it yourself. Really, I'm glad I switched over. It has simplified my online experience of life considerably, most especially with regards to saving time. I love that it does the hard work of combing the internet for me. I love that all the new content gets delivered to my doorstep, letting me choose the new blog content I would most relish reading first but keeping the other ones live until I'm ready to read them later. And I love that it has made the ongoing growth of my blogging life, as I discover new blogs to gather and follow along, so very easy to do.

*I've been planning to write this Bloglines review for some time, but Penelope Dullaghan's recent post in which she coined the term "boo blogs" lit my fire to finally get the review written and posted. Thanks, Penelope! I really enjoyed reading your perspective, and also discovering that I'm not alone in the way I experience blogs sometimes!

Meeting Lauren Winner

Lauren Winner came to RTS Orlando yesterday to speak about her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. (This is the same seminary Kirk and I happened to visit last week, which we decided was excellent timing on our part, as we hadn't visited the campus in quite some time and only happened to learn of her visit when we stopped to purchase some books at the bookstore!)

I first came to know Lauren Winner as most people did: about five years ago, with the release of her first book, the spiritual memoir Girl Meets God. I love this book for so many reasons, some of which include her honesty, her love for books and learning, her facile use of language, her transparency about her foibles as a young twentysomething, her deep exploration of spiritual territory, and, of course, how she translates a greater fullness to our faith through the medium of our Jewish heritage. I particularly love that this integration is delivered through the story of her own personal journey into Judaism, out of Judaism into Jesus, and her consequent struggle to understand Christianity in light of the Jewish faith.

It had been some time since I'd read Real Sex, having skimmed the entire book while taking a leisurely afternoon at the local Barnes & Noble Cafe back home a couple years ago, so I looked forward to a refresher talk on her perspective about sex, chastity, and our relationship to our bodies within Christianity.

More than that, though, I just looked forward to hearing her speak -- seeing how her personality on the page translates into real life, given the ideas you tend to gather about a person as you hear them share about themselves inside a book.

To the extent that you can gain real glimpses of a person through a one-hour lecture and a book signing, I will say that Lauren Winner appears to be one of the most articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, studied, feisty, yet down-to-earth 31-year-olds I have ever met. My respect for her increased by the minute as she shared with great candor about how she came to write the book and with even greater candor about what she would do differently if she could write the book all over again. I was particularly moved by her genuine grief that the book does not include any discussion about sexual violence, which she shared was a complete and grievous oversight. I also loved hearing her riff extensively on the many subjects that were raised as she fielded questions from the audience.

I could have listened to her talk all day long.

All of this would have been thrilling enough, but then I got to meet her. I confess I was nervous. Wouldn't you be nervous, too, if you got a few minutes of face-time with an author who has influenced you tremendously and with whom you feel a one-sided kinship when you read their books? I hemmed and hawed in my head about what to say. Should I say her book changed my life? Should I confess that I wrote and mailed her a letter back when I finished Girl Meets God for the first time? Should I dare ask to take a picture? Should I just let her sign the book and move on?

Thankfully, I was fifth in line, so I got to watch what other people did and then how she responded. Yes, she was gracious about taking pictures. Yes, she would listen to what individuals wanted to share. Yes, she would respond to new questions, and even extensively, settling back into her seat and gesticulating with her hands as she gained momentum in thinking about a new idea. She was adorable.

So, I braved it all. I told her that Girl Meets God changed my world, that along with Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott it was the first book to help me settle more into my own skin as a writer sharing about my spiritual journey. I told her about that letter I had written many years ago, how I had sent it care of her publisher without knowing if they would even forward it on to her, and how I had been compelled to write it because her book had raised so many thoughts and feelings in me about questions I'd already been asking myself about pursuing an academic path. This last part caught her interest, so we talked for a few moments about it.

And then to top it off, when she agreed to take a picture, she noticed my purse. It's a small vinyl magazine bag with classic leather books printed all over it. I get so many comments about this purse, and people are amazed when I tell them Kirk found it for me at Borders for something like ten bucks. But a comment on this purse from Lauren Winner? Nothing quite like it.

Here's Lauren, listening to me regale her with stories about my life. As you can see, she is a most gracious and present listener.

This is me, just plain happy to be sharing a moment with the amazing Lauren Winner.

She Moved Me

So, did any of you see Becoming Jane this weekend? Kirk and I went Friday night, and then again today, on Sunday afternoon.

The first night, it left me feeling dumb and speechless. I don't mean dumb in a stupid sort of way. What I mean is, I couldn't speak for about an hour. I went home and lay myself down on the bed and listened to the soundtrack for about an hour, until I was ready to speak.

And when we finally spoke, Kirk and I discussed beauty (which is what I felt I had encountered) and whether it requires any fitting response from us, or any response at all. Because I'll be honest: the film raised feelings in me that I hadn't felt in a very long time. I felt like I couldn't speak because the need to respond in some visceral, productive, articulate way was so strong, and I knew I couldn't do it justice. I couldn't measure up to the feelings I felt inside. I didn't even know what such an attempt would require.

We finally happened upon the possibility that perhaps what beauty actually requests of us is worship. If we are moved by beauty and turn to God in response, then some of the pressure is off. We get to be human, responding to a great God who is more infinitely beautiful than we can imagine, and He doesn't require perfection in response from us because He knows that we are human (even though we don't believe this of ourselves sometimes). Then we are free to respond in a human, imperfect way. But if we turn from beauty and try to respond out of our own strength, we will fall mute and dumb and lost. It just can't happen. We aren't strong enough, in our actual makeup, to handle it well.

I don't like this arrangement very much, because the fallen part of me wants to be strong enough to respond out of my own ability and merit, without having to turn to God first and then become human as a result. For some reason, I keep wanting to be superhuman, even though I find humanity intensely mysterious and wonderful much of the time.

Then I went to see the film again. It had the same response. I couldn't speak very well, but at least this time I could identify some more of the reasons why. A few of the scenes moved me beyond words: the scene where she is staying in London and, in the early hours of night, conceives of the Pride and Prejudice premise; and the scene at the end, where she is giving a reading of that great book, and her words are more perfectly placed and filled with understanding than she could have known in her earlier years. For some reason, both of these scenes filled me with such longing.

I haven't written to express myself creatively in some time. Even though writing is as much a part of me as my own breath, I haven't regarded it with the respect it deserves in my own life. Plainly put, I am scared. I'm scared I'm not up to the task. There is a whole landscape inside my soul that has yet to be traversed because I'm afraid. I despise myself for this fear. I've basically shut it down because I believe am not up to it. I've given up trying. I've moved to other pastures. Unfortunately so.

All that aside, the last thing I'll say is that Anne Hathaway is, indeed, a believeable Jane. I had my doubts, as usually I see Anne Hathaway as an actor in a role. She's cute, but she's still just usually herself. But she (thankfully) broke free of that stereotype for me in this important role. I saw her as Jane, plain and simple. And I was thankful.

Waitress, with Keri Russell

Kirk and I saw a great independent film tonight at the wonderfully historic Enzian Theatre. It's called Waitress, and it stars Keri Russell -- you know, the girl from Felicity. I know she has been in a few films since that show ended (Mission Impossible 3, The Upside of Anger, for example), but I think she and everyone else has been wondering if she was going to be pigeonholed forever as "that Felicity girl."

This is the film in which she finally succeeds in breaking that stereotype.

Waitress is a story about a young woman with a flair for baking pies. And not just baking them, but inventing new ones. Seriously, she invents a new pie every day -- it's part of her job at the diner -- and she pins them with great, creative names. Not only that, but you get to watch them being made often. It's one of the most inventive and beautiful bits about this film.

Most days this girl invents multiple new pie recipes -- she's just that talented -- and for her, it's not just a passion but something she was born to do. It opens a doorway into her most contented, calm, and satisfied self. Which is a really great thing to watch, because she's stuck in a pretty bad marriage, and you find out right away that she's now pregnant with a baby she doesn't want to bring into this life she's stuck living. But she decides to have the baby anyway.

The bright spots in this girl's life, besides all the pies, of course, are her two waitress friends at the diner (one of whom also wrote and directed the film). Collectively, they provide kicks to this movie and smart, witty dialogue. You can't help but love each of them with their quirkiness, their beautiful hearts, and their friendship and honesty with one another. Andy Griffith also shows up in a great role here, playing a crotchety old man who owns the diner. Oh, and there's also the issue of an extramarital affair. (I throw in that last part for any of you out there who might like to know ahead of time that this element shows up in the movie.)

If you have an independent theatre in your town, I highly recommend you go see this film. It's warm, it's witty, it's inventive, and it's sweet. I love the dialogue, and I especially love the humor. I love the sweet song she sings at one point in the movie about baking pies with heart in the middle, which the character learned from her own mother (and which I warn you that you'll be humming for at least 30 minutes after you leave the theatre).

Beyond all the strength the film carries on its own, I loved seeing Keri Russell star in a strong role other than that of Felicity. You believe in her character, you root for her, and you fall in love with her (and her pies!). I hope you see it and enjoy it thoroughly.

Movie Highlight: The Holiday

When Kirk took me to see The Holiday in theatres last December, I fell in love from moment one. Kate Winslet opens the movie with a voice-over about the different forms of love, landing firmly and finally on the woes of unrequited love in an exposition so authentically and painfully told that you can't help trusting her completely with the next two hours of your life. And she doesn't disappoint.

I loved this film so much that I traipsed happily back to the theatres one week later, having to see it again, and then snatched it up at Borders a few weeks ago once it came on sale.

Here's the great premise: Two women unlucky in love and having never met decide on a home exchange for the Christmas holiday. One woman (Kate Winslet) lives in England and makes a modest living writing for the London Telegraph. She owns an adorable book-lined and snow-steeped cottage in Surrey. (Besides falling in love with this movie and Kate's great character, I fell in love also with this little cottage.)

The other woman (Cameron Diaz) produces movie trailers for a living and owns a luxurious bungalow in the hills of L.A. She has probably never heard the phrase "modest living" in her whole life.

Of course, the inevitable outcome is that their lives change completely for the better from this experience. It's a perfectly made chick flick with excellent dialogue and comic timing that I highly recommend. Here are a few of my favorites from this film.

Favorite Kate Winslet moment: The five-minute montage of her excitable glee as she discovers perk after perk in her new temporary home, complete with jumps, squeals, yips, and a final face-down flop on the king-sized bed.

Favorite Cameron Diaz moment: The three times she closes her eyes only to hear the movie-trailer-voice-over-man giving a play-by-play of her life inside her head.

Favorite Jack Black movie: His meandering walk through the video store as he gives a vocal exposition on brilliant scores of brilliant films.

Favorite Jude Law moment: Mr. Napkinhead.

Favorite unexpected moment: Discovering the real Sophie and Olivia.

Favorite line: "Boob grace," said by Jack Black when he reaches past Kate Winslet at the sushi bar to get the soy sauce and accidentally catches her chest with the side of his hand.

Favorite musical moment: When Ennio Morricone's Cinema Paradiso score is pouring out of Jack Black's convertible and wafting through the air the first time he meets Kate Winslet.

A Traipse through My Literary Life

Here's a look at what I've been reading the past two weeks. If you can believe it, all of them were purchased by Kirk -- so I say he's got exceptional taste!

Crossing the Desertby Robert J. Wicks

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri Nouwen

As has been clear from recent posts, I've been walking through a desert experience and, as a result, am learning to listen more closely to the life of the heart in this long walk of faith. As such, these two books have been a fitting and tremendous gift to take with me along the path.

Crossing the Desert shares wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers about what happens when we move into the desert. The author applies four questions to the desert experience: What am I filled with now? What prevents me from letting go? How do I empty myself? and What will satisfy me yet leave me open to more? I'm sure you can tell from my recent writings how relevant these questions would be for me to consider right now. Perhaps they'll be relevant for you to consider, too.

The spiritual direction book by Henri Nouwen was published posthumously as a collection of his thoughts on the subject by two people who studied him extensively and knew him well. Some of the writings included in the collection were previously published, and some were excised from his private journals and notes. This book speaks quite sensitively to the life of the heart and how to live from a place of belovedness in Christ. Many sections made me feel as though Nouwen was speaking to me from across a table in a coffeeshop or armchair-to-armchair in his office. He writes with great tenderness and compassion, for he understands all too well the duplicity that can be found in our hearts and the aimless and useless striving we often employ to cope with the world.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

A gifted and successful writer who wrote five years for GQ (and was nominated for several awards along the way), Gilbert gave it all up to spend a year exploring the balance between pleasure and devotion. The clincher is how she did it: by spending four months in Italy to learn pleasure, four months in India to learn devotion, and four months in Bali to learn a balance between the two.

This book is absolutely a gorgeous read, as well as funny, tender, and even heartbreaking. To be honest, I wrestled at times with her section on devotion (she follows the Yogic tradition), even setting down the book in a huff or wanting to throw it across the room at times because of our major differences in faith, but in the end I found myself grateful, stimulated, and challenged by what she learned from her struggles to attend more faithfully to her faith and meditation practice.

Becoming Who You Are by James Martin

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing by Robert Inchausti

These are two excellent books more contemplative in nature.

Becoming Who You Are is written by a Jesuit priest culling primarily from the writings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen on the subject of the true self. I appreciated so much the humble honesty the author brings to this discussion, especially in sharing his own journey to finding his authentic self and walking away from a life of falsity. His story and the gentle way in which he writes moved me to even try to track down his e-mail address online in order to thank him! (I was unsuccessful in this attempt.) In short, this is a great read for those wishing to live a life of true courage and authenticity with a willingness to walk away from the trappings that so often ensnare us. I finished this book in a few hours, which should tell you not only how accessible it is but also how stimulating and deeply felt the material can be if you open your heart to its message.

I'm only about twenty pages into Echoing Silence, but already it has been helpful for the writer in me. It pulls together everything Thomas Merton ever wrote -- either in books, articles, published journals, or letters -- about his vocation as a writer and how he struggled to marry it to his life as a Trappist monk. The book gives a revealing look at Merton's very human side in the ways he struggled with pride and arrogance and even anger at times. By seeing Merton's humanity, him being such a great teacher and modern saint, I am being brought to believe even more in Christ's power to transform hearts, inhabit our being, and even triumph over our inadequacies by ministering His power to others despite our own limitations and failures. Again, this is another great primer on finding the true self, and an encouragement to embrace authenticity.

Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen

The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Lifeby Henri Nouwen

I read these two at a monastery in Santa Barbara that we stayed in for a few days last week. Life of the Beloved was a surprise-find in one of their libraries and held me in its grip from the very first page. It reads as a letter Nouwen wrote to his young friend who was seeking the relevance of faith to a secular life (or one lived outside a monastic or religious calling). As you read this book, you are both rooting for his friend to be enlightened and transformed by the words while being enlightened and transformed at a deep and visceral level yourself. I felt fully engulfed in the love of Christ and my place in God's great heart while I read every single page of this short, remarkable book.

The Selfless Love of Christ has been a challenging read for me. As you know, I've been wrestling to "let go of my lists" and stop striving for acknowledgement and worldly gain. Just as its subtitle suggests, this book helps us understand how a life of downward mobility -- a stripping away of our fleshly desires (but not desire itself) -- is the heart and example of Christ, who is the very foundation and model for our faith. I haven't finished this one yet because, as I said, it's been hard! But I do believe it speaks true and tells a message that's worth our embrace. I plan to continue reading it in the coming weeks.

And, up next . . .

The Crime of Living Cautiously by Luci Shaw

Kirk handed this one to me tonight, and I look forward to reading in it about the importance of risk-taking in order to live the lives we were created to live. Should be a good read!

Postnote: I just re-read this post and realized how very much of a book nerd I am. Kirk is, too. We're actually self-proclaimed book addicts. (Remember my post from a few months ago on this subject?) Just to give you a heads-up on our habits of book behavior, when we were on vacation last week, we had to have spent at least $350 on new books. This is more than we spent on food the whole week, I think. And to give you an idea of what this looks like in real life, we had to pack many of the "old" books we had brought with us on the front end of the journey in our checked luggage on the way back just so that we could enjoy some of our new finds on the homebound flight! So, yeah, we're dorks about this. We love bookstores and the feel of new books in hand, the anticipation of how they might help form our souls into what God's making them to be. And Kirk is especially good at finding unique and well-suited-to-the-moment books for both of us. We love this about each other, and we love this about ourselves, period. Can you relate to this at all??

What Tale Does Your Shelf Tell?

I was brushing my wet hair on the couch this morning and noticed a pile of books sitting on top of the printer in front of me. They were Kirk's books -- he'd placed them there to clear a space on the coffee table at the end of our bed, no doubt -- and I suddenly realized: our books say so much about us.

First, they say so much about our habits. Kirk and I live in a studio apartment. It's about 800 square feet and houses a full kitchen, bathroom, living space, and sleeping area, surprisingly. We love it. We call it Ashford Cottage, after Ashford Castle, where we spent the first night of our honeymoon.

I mention this because, for two bibliophiles like us, we can't fit all of the books we own into this house. Kirk gave three-fourths of the books he owned away when he sold his house last year, yet he still owns probably two hundred books. I gave away bunches to students before I moved, too, though not nearly as many, partly because I've never owned near the number of books he has, and partly because I'm just plain stingy when it comes to keeping my books. Yet even after all that charity, we've had to make good use of storage. And despite our best efforts to pare down our collections, the collections keep growing, almost of their own accord.

When we first started living here, we appointed the main kitchen cabinet as our bookshelf. We don't do much cooking, so it's not like we needed the space for normal kitcken purposes. Plus, the cabinet has two sides with two shelves each, so it made for a perfect "his" and "hers" delineation. Yet without our even realizing it -- which is to say, without our thinking much about it, since we both understand the need to keep books close by -- new homes for books sprung up all over the interior life of this house. My books have landed in droves on, under, and beside my nightstand, plus I can pull handfuls out of the different bags I cart with me to work or the nearest coffee shop on weekends. Kirk's books end up on his nightstand, too, but it's safe to say he has officially taken over the kitchen. Two crates full of books have ended up next to the kitchen table we never use, and they seem intent on staying there, it seems, for good.

Let's make this personal: Given this challenge for space in your own house, which books would you choose to keep close by? That is a question I find very interesting, as it's really what struck me this morning when I was brushing my hair on the couch. The books on top of the printer were a hodge-podge of titles, but they were so . . . well . . . so Kirk. There was a David Whyte book on finding the soul in business. There was a book called The Tao of Writing. There was an Excel for Dummies book, the discarded remnant of his latest class, which was a horrifically difficult class on statistics.

I started thinking about the books covering the kitchen table and his side of the makeshift bookshelf we've created in the cabinet. He's got tons of spiritual classics in there, plus books on Zen Buddhism, books by Thomas Merton, and contemporary books about the spiritual journey. He's got books on entrepreneurial business, terrifically creative books about creativity, and books that combine the spiritual life with enterpreneurial ventures in the creative arts. All of these these speak so much of who Kirk is, the unique heart implanted inside his body that's moving every day toward the wondrously courageous life God created him to lead.

Which got me thinking about what my books might say about my own heart. What do I value? What do I choose to own or not own, when it comes to books? I guess the titles I own -- which can be catalogued into the four categories of books on writing, travel narratives, spiritual memoir, and literary novels -- would say that I value the well-written word, the life of the heart, and quirky, reflective adventures.

What does your shelf say about you?

April Dreams

I admit it: I like Katie Holmes.

A lot of people think she can't act, but I have a movie that proves otherwise. Give "Pieces of April" a try. Instead of playing the sugar-sweet girl-next-door like she did in "Dawson's Creek" or embodying the aspiring-lawyer-who'll-take-on-the-world-to-save-it like she did in "Batman Begins," Katie plays an indie-rebel type who's estranged from her family and living in NYC. With her boyfriend. Who is black. And loves her very much. It's really sweet, actually, how much he loves her and she loves him.

The story is, April's family is a family without her. She never fit in as a kid, I guess, and they ostracized her so much that she finally went away when she grew up. They think this is great. They think (except maybe her father) that they're better off without her. But her mom is sick now, so she's invited them, for some reason that reveals more of her heart than they can ever see, into the city for Thanksgiving dinner at her place.

They don't know why she invited them. They don't even know why they're going. They (and I'm speaking primarily of her mom and younger sister here) keep trying to find excuses not to go. They even drive through Krispy Kreme to get food before they land at her house because, oh yeah, April's cooking, and "We'll need an extra dozen of those glazed donuts," her mom shouts through the window at the drive-up.

But on the flip side, April's working hard and like crazy to pull things together. It's a modest meal because she's making everything from the can -- green beans, yams, cranberries, mussels -- and getting the stuffing from a box. But she's managing, and managing with class, I must say. Her boyfriend even bought some cheap turkey-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers for the table, and she bought balloons and streamers for the stairway that climbs to her front door.

All along, as you get the family history through the back-and-forth scenes with the rest of the family, you can't help but wonder why April even bothered to invite them. Why she even cares so much. But she does.

And then her stove breaks.

She has to go from door to door -- in a rundown Manhattan building, mind you, where there's graffiti on the walk-up door and none of the neighbors know each other or talk or even make eye contact -- and ask for the use of someone's stove. Over the course of the movie, this blasted turkey sees the innards of four heat houses.

And when the family finally gets there, well . . . I'll let you find out how the story ends on your own.

This review should in no way act as a substitution for your own viewing of the movie. The film shots are spectacular, the dialogue is quippy and natural and funny, the story is heartbreaking and heartfilling both, and you can't take your eyes off the screen. Go rent -- or even buy -- it right now. Or this weekend. Or the next. You will not be disappointed, I promise.

Unless, that is, you're a grump or fundamental traditionalist. Whatever, of course, that term means. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with not being someone who gets that life is all about the stories of our hearts.

How Do You Do, Mr. Modern-Day O'Connor?

About six years ago, when I had just graduated from college and was working my first full-time job as an editor at Insight for Living, I used to take the MetroLink train from Corona to Anaheim and back every day. It was the best investment I could have made in my life at that time. For about $120 a month, which was pretty much what I would have spent in gas, less the oil changes and the stress, I could get to and from work in 20 minutes and read while doing it. In other words, instead of slogging through 2 hours worth of traffic on the 91 freeway every day -- which is, in my opinion, well nigh close to hell on earth -- I sat instead by a window on that fast-moving and quiet-keeping train, in turn watching those sad-seated drivers on the freeway right beside us and broadening my budding literary life.

That's where I first read Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life." It's also where I discovered Bret Lott.

Bret Lott wrote, most famously, a book called "Jewel" that was selected for Oprah's Book Club back in 1999. I didn't read the book because it was selected for the book club. In fact, I stayed away from it for a good, long while because of that. As a rule, I don't trust media hype or books touted by supersized figures. Oprah's stamp of approval, then, was a stamp I did not trust. That is just my way.

But eventually my curiosity got the better of me. This is because I'd heard Lott is an evangelical Christian writing in the mainstream market. For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology or why it even matters, here are two things you should know:

1) Most "Christian writers" (though I hate that confining and off-putting term) publish with Christian publishers, sell their books in Christian bookstores, and never enter the mainstream conversation the rest of the world is carrying.

2) Fiction written by these people is thought to be sub-par in quality because most Christian writers -- and their publishers -- tend to think these books should carry a strong evangelistic message more than anything else. This means that it should have overtly Christian characters, speak well only of Christian values, and include characters who obviously need to find Jesus. It also means that everything will be neatly tied up with a bow by the end, the non-Christian vagrants converted and everyone living happily ever after. As if that's how life really happens, once you're inside the church.

Needless to say, I think this criminal. It infuriates me. If you want to get me going on a subject, this is one you could pick because I think we fail both God and others when we do this. Yes, that's right, God and others -- the same two categories of people we are to love with a true heart more than anything else. But the sad thing is, I think these Christian writers really believe they are loving God and others by doing this -- that because they're writing novels that show "redemption" in the end, where people find the Lord and come into the Christian fold, they are preaching the Good News and helping others see the need for it. The only problem is, they're not reaching the world with this message (remember how I said they only publish for a Christian audience?) and they don't show people or events or even, dare I say, the heart of God in truest form when they do this.

I could write a whole book on this subject.

This is where Bret Lott comes in. You can see now why I'd find it curious that he'd 1) be an evangelistic Christian publishing in the non-Christian market and 2) Oprah would pick him for her must-read list. This is curious because publishing in the non-Christian market means actual Christians probably never heard of him. It's also curious because getting an Oprah endorsement means a million non-Christians now were reading his books. (Just to prove my point, try this little bit of trivia on for size: The day Oprah called to tell Bret Lott she wanted to add "Jewel" to her book club list, the book was ranked 1,069,713 on the sales list on Amazon.com. By that evening, it had catapulted to number 1 on the list.)

All this to say that I finally read Bret Lott on the Amtrack train during my commute 6 years ago and have been entranced by him ever since. I loved that book, and I still do not know why. It's about a woman living in the South who gives birth at an older age to a little girl with Down syndrome. At that point in time, I wasn't one to read Southern fiction, nor had I ever been drawn to books about motherhood or children with disabilities. But there was something about the way he wrote that captivated me from the start.

The same is true with the latest book I am reading of his, called "A Song I Knew by Heart." Again, this is not a book I would normally choose to read. It's a modern-day retelling of the story of Ruth and Naomi -- two women joined by marriage who have lost their husbands and return to the hometown of the mother in the folds of grief. I've read the book of Ruth in the Bible handfuls of time, so I didn't particularly need to read it again. Nor do I usually enjoy stories that retell classic ones. I usually think the original is better to read, so why not just point the way to that one?

But this was different. Almost immediately, I was captivated by the language, by the details, by the emotional undercurrent of grief and pain and confusion and anger and hope for some new beginning. If you want to be really moved by something -- and find your own self inside the story of another person -- read pages 26-31 of the paperback version, where Naomi recounts her baptism experience from when she was a child. That's just one example of the power of his words that I'm talking about here.

When I read this book -- and so far I am only on chapter 5 -- I am entranced by Mr. Lott's ability, as a man, to not only enter into the skin of a woman who has lost her husband and her son, but also his ability to speak openly about faith without "putting it on." Faith isn't trying to be worked into these books; it just is in them already. The best way I can explain it is to say go and read it yourself.

I know this is a really long post already, but I have three last things to say:

1) I think Bret Lott is our modern-day Flannery O'Connor. She was overtly Catholic but published books in the mainstream. She had lots to say about what art should or shouldn't be, and especially art coming from people of the faith. (Just read her book of essays "Mystery and Manners" or her collection of letters "Habit of Being" to learn more about this and get what I'm talking about.) She is generally respected as an authority on this subject by parties on both sides of the fence. I think someday everyone will look to Bret Lott as an example of how to do it best, just like they do for Flannery O'Connor now.

2) Have you ever heard of those books called "The Best Short Stories" or "The Best Travel Writing" or "The Best Mystery Writing" of whatever year we're currently in? They have a whole slew of different ones, including one on best Christian fiction. I don't usually read those books, and I particularly take great care to avoid the Christian version (for reasons I mentioned above), but Bret Lott was the editor of the latest version of the Christian one, called "The Best Christian Short Stories of 2006," and I aim to check it out soon. I have hope that he's found some noteworthy and substantial Christian writers our there that will be worth watching as they grow in their careers.

3) In even more recent Lott news, he just received the Christy award from CBA, which the bookseller's association for the whole Christian market. He was pretty shocked to get this award, since he doesn't publish for Christian markets, and so was I. Turns out a lot of other people were shocked and offended by his very direct speech at the meeting when he received his award, while other people, including myself, cheered. Read what he said about the point of fiction -- and fiction from the standpoint of faith -- here.

Thanks to You

Thank you for all the kind comments and e-mails in response to yesterday's post. They lifted my spirits and helped me remember I'm not alone; there's a great group of people back home -- and even elsewhere -- who are keeping up with my life in blog posts. It made me feel like you are more "with me" than you physically are. I appreciated knowing that.

Last night, the only thing that could do my heart any good was the new version of Pride & Prejudice. As I just relayed to my friend Jen in an e-mail, I didn't like this version when it first came out. For one, the Bennett family just brazenly annoyed me. (Yes, I know they were supposed to. But did her mom really have to whine so much? And did her sisters Lydia and Kitty really have to whine and fawn so much? It distracted me to the point of losing interest when I first saw it.) And for two, sometimes I really like Keira Knightly and sometimes I really don't. For instance, her hair. What's with her hair in that movie? It's cut almost like a blunt around her face, but longer in the back. I have no idea why they did this; nobody else's hair is cut this horrifically in the movie. And then there's the issue of her voice and smile; sometimes they seem so carefully put-on and fake in the movie, and the real Elizabeth Bennett would never give this impression!

But I've now watched this new version two more times and am beginning to change my mind. From a filmmaker's perspective, it's spectacularly done. (And I speak as a non-filmmaker here, in case you didn't know I have no experience with film. But that's obviously not going to stop me from giving you some of my opinions about it anyway.)

Watch the first full scene and you'll know what I mean about its being spectacular -- besides making clear the family's lower class distinction with all the ducks and pigs and airing laundry and kitchen messes, the scene opens with Eliza reading a book, showing she's not just stuck in the muck of poverty but is brainy and resourceful. When the family erupts in chaos about Mr. Bingley coming to town, Eliza simply turns around on the couch and watches her sisters go crazy in fuss, showing she, as a person, is more at a distance from their showy provocations. Finally, the scene closes by pulling to a full-frame view of their crowded house, flanked by the two majestic oak trees, just as the music comes to a close. This is a brilliant way to end the scene, for now you really can tell the director or editor or whoever makes this decision wanted you to feel like they were saying, "There. That's where she came from."

Anyway, I finished half of it last night and will finish the other half tonight. I wanted to read the book instead, especially since one of Kirk's congratulatory gifts to me for my new job was a leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of it, but my eyes were too tired and heavy from the past few days. The movie was just the trick to strike a happy medium, and my heart welled up at the watching of it. (Or, rather, sometimes the hearing of it, since when my eyes got too tired to stay trained on the screen I would just close my eyes and curl up on the courch and just listen to the music and conversations taking place.)

As of today, I'm feeling much better. It may have something to do with a good night's rest, or your prayers, or the movie, or even all the vitamins I've been popping. Whatever it is, I woke feeling much refreshed and ready to face the new day.

As a postscript, so many of you referenced Anne of Green Gables in your responses back to me because of my reference to wanting a "kindred spirit" that it may interest you to learn the following: Kirk is in the process of being inducted into Anne's world. I rented it from library a couple weekends ago (since I only own it on VHS and the library is more high-tech on this one than I am), and we've been making our way slowly through it ever since. So far, he's a keeper because he's keeping with it by his own volitional choice. Every once in a while, even, he'll look over at me and say, "I know why you like this movie." Or he'll start talking to the screen, which means it's really taken him in by that point. Or he'll reference something from it in a conversation later in the day. Last of all, he's taken to calling me "Christianne with an e." Isn't that amazing? I'm thrilled. It's important that the most valued people in our lives really "get" what makes us tick and what has helped us become who we are.

More Thoughts on Music

So, after 4 years in an classics program and 3 years reading at least 1,000 academic papers, I have a few formed thoughts on what makes music good.

Disclaimer: These thoughts come straight from Plato. If you haven't read him, you'll feel like you have after the following crash course in a few of his basic philosophies. And if you stick with me til the end, I promise a sweet "philosophy of music" payoff -- to which I'd love your input.

First, Plato believed the human soul to be comprised of three faculties: the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited. The rational is, you guessed it, given to reason. The appetitive is, guessed right again, given to appetite or desire. And the spirited is, less obviously, the one that mediates between the other two.

Note: By "appetite," Plato didn't mean foodstuffs. He meant "base pleasures," or pleasures controlled by carnal desires devoid of reason.

The one that usually confuses people is the spirited faculty. What does it mean for part of our soul to "mediate" between desire and reason? It might be easier to think of it this way: Whenever our reason and appetite conflict, the spirited faculty is the one that chooses which one to follow. In fact, it's the one that chooses anything that needs choosing, since it's the part of our soul that controls our will.

Plato then says that the goal of a well-lived life is to develop a "just soul," or justice among the three parts. And since reason is what separates us from the animals, justice for the human soul means getting our spirited faculty to defer to our rational faculty instead of our appetitive one. Furthermore, it means getting our appetitive faculty to conform -- even submit -- to reason so that the soul runs smoothly within itself, rather than in combat mode.

With me still? Here's a quick recap:

Man = Reason + Desire + Will
Animals = Desire + Will
Plants, Pianos, Desks, and other Inanimate Objects = None of the Above

Thus, by virtue of our humanness, we should prefer to live in accordance with reason instead of appetite, as choosing the latter likens us unto mere brutes . . . and that can't possibly be good.

Now for the musical connection.

Just as the soul is made of three parts, so is music comprised of three parts: words, rhythms, and modes. And, lo and behold, the three parts of music correspond evenly to the three parts of the soul!

How so?

Well, the words are the "rational" part of music. They communicate the meaning, or idea, of it. (Which, in the case of wordless music, still holds true because it means the main idea motivating the creation of that piece.) Conversely, the rhythm of a piece of music is its "appetitive" part, the part that gets our shoulders moving, our feet tapping, our fingers snapping. In other words, rhythm, like the appetitive portion of our soul, taps into the more visceral parts of our nature. And finally, the mode, or "spirited" part, is what unites the two and gives them life. It's what actualizes the words and rhythms into a piece of music through the power of tone, melody, harmony, time signature, tempo, and/or emotive release.

Now, to apply Plato's idea of the just soul to music, we can create a filter for "good music."

Good music should:

1) Have a motivating idea or purpose, always communicated through words when available.

2) Be supported, not overpowered, by the rhythmic aspect.

3) Fuse words and rhythms through modal choices so as to evoke the power of the main idea in the listener.

4) Carry a resonant "sound," or energy, that uses the instruments, harmonies, melodies, and toe-tapping rhythm to perfectly reflect its main idea.

5) When done well, the discovery of the main idea and its corresponding emotion will be an unavoidable byproduct of listening to the piece.

Some concluding thoughts:

Are we commonly aware of music's power to shape -- and even reflect -- the state of our souls? Do we care that it holds that power? Why or why not?

As someone who cares about the formation of her soul, this goes a long way in explaining why cars that bump and vibrate next to me at the stop light affect me on a physical, even soul-shaking, level. Such an encounter drives me to bodily itchiness, discomfort, and aggravation! And, according to Plato's filter, this must be because I'm actively seeking to be mastered by reason, not appetite, and appetite is just what enslaves that kind of music.

Lord, help us strive to be creatures moved by what is truly good -- which, in the context of music, is that music that carries beautiful ideas and is coupled by corresponding tonalities and rhythms that elevate the spheres of our souls into the heavens, nearer to You. Amen.

Good Music = Good for the Soul

Thanks to my good friend Hannah, I'm discovering all sorts of delicious music these days.

Copeland. Waking Ashland. Mae. To name just a few.

Hannah has -- get this -- 325 albums loaded on her computer, which translates into just shy of 4,000 tracks. Whew! Maybe this sounds like small beans to some of you, but it blows my virginal mind completely; I had a mere 2 to 3 albums loaded on my computer when we began meeting for work-dates at Diedrich's coffee shop last December. We needed good music -- and a strong variety of it! -- to get us through those last harried weeks of our respective semesters.

Well, it's that time of the semester again, and I've discovered the needs haven't changed. I sound my newly amplified playlists over and again, and thank God repeatedly for the discovery of new music. There's so much variety out there! I'm amazed musicians for ages past have worked with the same harmonious, melodious, and/or discordant combinations of notes to produce altogether new creations for as long as they have. It's a miracle that will keep repeating itself till the end of time, and even longer. What an amazingly creative thing for God to have invented and shared with the rest of us!

Question of the day: What makes music good?