This is what I do now that I live on an island alone: Buy Sparkly Fun toothpaste

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When I went to the local Big Save to buy toothpaste and a scented candle, I hoped it would be the only tube of toothpaste I’d have to buy while separated from my wife. That by the time I rolled its end to the front we’d be back together. I studied the options in the shelves and chose the flavor: Sparkly Fun.

I wandered through the tourist aisle and browsed wooden sandal keychains, Hawaii license plates with Aloha, miniature surf boards, post cards with sunsets like the one I watch down the street from the small room I rent on the far west-side of the island. I felt the cloth of surf shirts, plastic fins, foam boogie boards.

I flipped through a book of Hawaiian words. Iniki, in Hawaiian, means sharp and piercing, like the wind or the pangs of love. Iwa is the Hawaiian name for the frigatebird, black and pelican-like, known to be unafraid of stealing from others. These are also the names of two devastating hurricanes that changed the island forever.

At the end of the aisle I chose a candle with a “Clean Linen” scent and its accompanying air-spray. My new housemates smoke and its reek is permanently embedded in all facets of my small room, the lamp shades, the mattress, the curtains, the wooden computer desk, the armchair in the corner.

I need the candle and the air-spray to mask the smoke, but also to lay the foundation of familiarity. My home is no longer my wife’s perfume or the scent of her shampooed hair in the pillow. It’s now clean linen with a hint of smoke, like my shirts and socks fluttering in the dry afternoon breeze along the clothesline in the backyard.

When I wake up in a panic, scrambling across the bed, reaching for someone who is not there, it’s that clean linen scent that returns me to reality. The weight of that reality falls upon my chest again and again each morning. I suffer the small suffocation every time I brush my teeth and roll the end near the front. Each day a reminder and a new pattern being formed. A pattern I don’t want. A reminder I’d rather soon forget.

When I don’t work I surf and when I do neither I watch movies. I rub aloe on my sun burns. I say the Lord’s prayer when I drive home after work. I listen to Drake on repeat, “Just hold on, we’re going home.” I drink beer. I pee dark yellow. My neck always itches. At night I hear waves crash. The roosters never stop crowing.

The next time I go to the store I will buy my third tube of toothpaste. I will no longer be married. I will take my time deciding but eventually I will settle on Sparkly Fun because I hope to find myself in repetition.

The next time you see me I will smell of clean linen and cigarette smoke. My breath will be sparkly fun. I will want to hug you and never let go.


The image above is of the waves I hear at night and in the distance is the forbidden island of Ni’ihau. You can only go if you’re invited by the locals.

Slow, Deep, Descriptive Storytelling

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Jonathan Fitzgerald muses over his use of anecdotes, how his writing falls into “the introductory anecdote, argument, and application” pattern that’s so-very Evangelical and not-so literary.

Do we tell the bare amount of a story to communicate a meaning? Or do we tell the full story, let the characters come as alive as they can, imbue the settings with a very real sense of atmosphere and depth, and try to make the reader feel the true turmoil of conflict?

These things are harder to do, which might be another reason that so many of us choose not to write this way. It’s easier to offer an anecdote, the illusion of a story, and move on to exposition. But if we were to tell stories the way they’re meant to be told, I believe, the reader’s sense of the meaning, not to mention his or her enjoyment, would increase.

It isn’t just about the reader’s enjoyment, it’s also about doing justice to the world through our words, through our wild and complex stories that can’t be easily packaged, named, categorized, or written.

I’m issuing a call back toward storytelling — slow, deep, descriptive storytelling.

The Way we Change is to Experience a Disruption. Interview with Rob Bell.

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Ktizo is Greek meaning ‘to form, shape, completely change or transform’ “with the creativity of God being the epitome of these actions that inspire us to do the same.” So says Ktizo Magazine, which did a recent interview with Rob Bell. You can download the issue and read the full interview here.

Ktizo: You love to incorporate art of all varieties with your ministries. How have you come to understand the creative approach as something that works so well?

Rob Bell: What’s interesting is in the rabbinical tradition, a sacred text is like a jewel. It’s like a precious stone and when you turn it the light refracts in different ways. The way that you think about the divine is that the divine is spoken and the rest is commentary. So we’re exploring. It was never like there is a finite endpoint, if you just get there then you’re right. It’s always about the hunt, the struggle, the doubt, the sweat, the stretching.

I would say a lot of what passes for Western religious systems nowadays are actually belief affirmation systems- I come, I tithe, I give some money, I vote the right way, I show up at the right time to keep the attendance up, and then you tell me what I already believe. So if we get some wing nut in here who tells us something slightly different we have to expunge them from the system because the system works in a particular way. but the actual way that we change is we experience a disruption. We hear something that grabs us and we can’t go on in the same way.

So it’s actually a disruption, and that’s the power of art.

Ktizo: We heard that surfing is a big part of your life now and probably therapeutic in a sense, too. How is getting up on the waves influencing you?

Rob Bell: Where else are you carried across the Earth’s surface by an orbital pattern of energy moving at a sped you can actually manage to keep up with long enough for it to catch you and then you’re floating along on pure grace? It’s…it’s…there just aren’t words. If I talk any more I’ve ruined it. As the Hebrews would say there’s a Selah* right here.

* rough translations of Selah are mine: “to pause and think” or “to stop and listen”

The Saviors of Literature? Neurohumanities vs. Psychology

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Gregory Currie’s NY Times Opinion piece argues literature is dependent on psychology to prove its merit and use.

He isn’t satisfied by leaning on the adage of faith (or even mystery, although so much of literature is ambiguous and mysterious), but rather wants the facts proving literature’s benefit:

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being.

That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment. I have never been persuaded by arguments purporting to show that literature is an arbitrary category that functions merely as a badge of membership in an elite. There is such a thing as aesthetic merit, or more likely, aesthetic merits, complicated as they may be to articulate or impute to any given work.

While he admits this may take some time, I find the dichotomy between “everything depends” and “casual evidence” shaky. And I doubt psychologies role in the matter.

On the more advanced side we have Neurohumanities. Which are pressing for similar cerebral answers.

Neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. This was exemplified by the so-called Sokal affair in 1996, in which a physics professor named Alan Sokal submitted a hoax theoretical paper on science to Social Text, only to unmask himself and lambaste the theorists who accepted and published his piece as not understanding the science.

She anticipates that neurohumanities influence will begin to seep into the actual culture of art:

It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000?

How to be ahead of your time as an artist: Daft Punk as Pioneers “five years ahead of people”

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Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, work with an acute self-awareness of their innovation, and of their audience’s incomprehension of their ingenuity and impact.

“To jump from 1,800 people to 40,000 was pretty brutal,” he says, stretching out the word. “Because of the anonymity, the relationship with our audience until that point was an abstract concept, so to feel this energy was very strange. It felt like we had validated something that had been so abstract— in French, it’s called le concrétisation…”

De Homem-Christo offers a translation: “Make it real.”

“We like the idea of trying to be pioneers,” continues Bangalter, “but the problem with that is when you’re too much ahead, the connection doesn’t really happen at the time. At Coachella, we still may have been five years ahead of people, but the connection was happening at that moment. It was the most synched-up we ever felt.”

Regardless, they still want that fan connection. It’s strange to think their “show”, the costumes and helmets, which separate them from their fans, in fact allows for that real connection to happen through the music.

Bangalter recalls a well-behaved teenage acquaintance who wished to be an accountant because he could “have a cool retirement plan.” The pair, who were among only a few in their school who were into the likes of Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Big Star, the Beach Boys, and the Velvet Underground, quickly bonded. And, in their own way, they’ve been bucking the status quo ever since. It’s why Daft Punk are more punk than almost any punk band of the last 20 years: They refuse to take the familiar path, all in the name of keeping themselves— and their audience— engaged. Random Access Memories, their first proper album in eight years, takes this impulse to the extreme.

How to be ahead of your time as an artist:

1. Know your history

Daft Punk is incredibly knowledgable about where their type of music came from and where it’s going. It’s strange to think disco has done so much. Go into the history of your art form. You’ll find that history has already shaped you and can grow your potential even more.

2. Find inspiration in those who came before you

Dead or old, the masters of your craft, many you’ve never heard of, will teach you more than you’re ready for. Seek them out. Copy them. Learn their strengths and weakness. 

3. Collaborate

Daft Punk realized their limitations as artists so they shared their vision with other musicians. Not only did they develop their craft, but the inspiration challenged their vision.

Listen:


Creativity Series: “God, the Artist, and the World” by Judith Hougen

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When I was sixteen, my father retired from the military, initiating the last move of my childhood to a small town in Wisconsin. I was once again the new kid, the outsider seeking a space, a community, to call my own. That summer, I found myself drawn to night skies, the warm swirl of darkness and stars freed of suburban glow. Laying in the front yard of our home, surrounded largely by farmland, there was something about vastness that eased my loneliness, my wretched anonymity.

I remember cool grass under my shoulders, the sawing of crickets, and a growing sense of immensity. In that space I contemplated my life and the God whose existence I couldn’t shake. That scene remains for me a picture of longing, an attempt to grapple with, to reconcile, the random awkwardness of my small existence with an expansive and patterned universe.

In my life as a writer, I find myself back in that yard, metaphorically speaking, my face toward the heavens, earth solid beneath my back—my human form caught up in both realms, negotiating these two wonders. For me, this is a picture of the artist of faith in the world.

Catholic theologian and philosopher Gerald Vann says that, by its very nature, humanity has a “duty” toward both the physical and spiritual worlds. He writes, “Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as the midpoint between the world of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality.” At her best, the faith-filled artist embodies these two dynamics. Human life is a divine invitation to be fully alive in both our physical and spiritual natures and to experience these two natures as fully alive within each other.

What I experienced on those summer nights is the incarnational nature of reality, a world where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” where God relentlessly upholds creation as a point of spiritual access and relationship. That this is the case is no small matter for the artist. In my writing, I see the physical and spiritual as inextricably fused. My work, then, as a mediator is a call to recognition, to a wide and penetrating vision, and to live as fully as possible in both spheres, enfolding both within my writing. Great artists rightly recognize and express the spirituality of the material and materiality of the spiritual.

Such a vision invites me to a certain posture toward my writing practice. I traffic in meanings, and incarnational reality signals, if nothing else, that the universe is rife with meaning and significance. I remain open and sensitive to how meaning will impress itself upon my work, not attempting to create or impose it. Meaning is already present because God created both language and the world. It is intuited and received, not conjured.

But there are difficulties in this largely countercultural approach to creating. Writers often are encouraged to adopt a production mentality about their work. Writing is a product obtained by exercising dominance over language and ideas, a doing-unto the text. And, generally, we have been rewarded for the outcomes of this kind of approach. In my younger days, writing was a way to accrue social and academic capital, something to prop up my identity. Even now, I can become overly invested in the results, restless and demanding, too attuned to the winds of social media, and find myself despising the beautiful hiddenness that is a crucial element of the writer’s path. Such a posture is at odds with Vann’s vision of our role as holy mediators. Caught in that place, I sense a deep-down hunger for the solidity of a star-laden summer night.

To immerse myself in this greater vision is part of my calling, and for that I need a more contemplative approach to life and writing. I need to learn how to be quiet and to breathe, to move slowly and pay more attention, remembering that small details matter and learning to truly see them. Flannery O’Connor, an unashamed fan of staring, touches on this more contemplative way of being and working, saying, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you will see in it.” Through such careful seeing, she says, “The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”

We were made for mystery, and that mystery is the expansiveness of the world, the Spirit, the love and meaning that is each moment’s possibility. Writers of faith must trust and lean into other powers to accomplish their art. In such an atmosphere, our work with words becomes a gift, a gratitude.

I’m a long way from that teenager in the Wisconsin countryside, living in St. Paul these days, but looking back I see a beauty in her and her quest to reconcile the worlds around and within. I identify with the goodness she sought, alone on the lawn as the stars pressed close, her implicit recognition of meaning in a spiritually charged world.

As I work and write amid the determined movements of early spring, I know I cannot control the night sky or the first shoots of green that still slumber beneath my feet. Mystery is all. What I can do—and what I believe is my vocation—is to cultivate vision, to be a loving witness as I mediate earth and heaven, holding the tensions of clay and spirit, scatteredness and order, and out of such holding to find words enough to glimpse the glory of what is.


Judith Hougen is an Associate Professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota where she has taught writing for twenty years. She has written two books: The Second Thing I Remember (poetry) and Transformed Into Fire (spiritual formation). When not endlessly grading, she works on her own writing, currently a collection of essays on faith and the writing life. She blogs at Coracle Journeys and lurks on Twitter at @JudithHougen.

How to replace Google Reader and be better off for it

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It’s perhaps sad that I look for ways to maximize my reading efficiency, but I can’t keep up with everything I want to keep up with. I like making sense of the world through connections and ideas and stories. So I’m constantly reading, usually on my iPhone and MacBook, the news and blogs and articles and books.

Google just announced they’re shutting down Google Reader in 3 months. If you don’t know what that is it’s a magical tool that takes anything I want to read on the internet and puts it in one scrollable place. I don’t have to visit every website because every website comes to me. Magical, yes.

The Google Reader community is understandably pissed. Many bloggers will lose a chunk of their readership. I don’t know if anyone uses GR to read my blog, but if you do just switch over to Feedly on your favorite web browser and you’ll be good to go. I even got the app. I think it will be better than GR and it has a nicer looking design.

Other tools I use everyday and can’t do without in my reading/writing efficiency toolbox: Flipboard app for iPhone, Instapaper, and Evernote. If you want to shop around for RSS readers maybe sift through this reddit discussion with lots of links.

How to Write the Way Terrence Malick Makes Movies

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You can watch some behind the scenes extras of Terrence Malick’s upcoming film To The Wonder. The rumor is that Ben Affleck hardly has any lines and that the scenes and story lines from 4 different talented and popular actors were all cut during editing. We sometimes tell ourselves to kill our darlings, but 4 actors all snipped! 

Why have those story lines? Why sign them just to cut them?

I’ll let the movie’s Editor, Keith Fraase, explain why:

Terry [Terrence Malick] is more about reacting to what he’s seeing on screen, so he’s not, “This character needs to be doing this in this scene.” It’s more about seeing what’s there and whether it’s what Terry calls “honest or not.” And if there’s any hint of falsity or theatricality then we abandon that, even if it’s more accurate for what the scene is we’ll go into a completely different direction to try and get those honest moments.

That’s such a hard discipline to adhere to. First, it requires over-creating, knowing all the while that anything could get cut. But in the over-creating, there’s the never ending pursuit for honesty. The next challenge comes in the editing process, when you have to make the decisions on what to snip. It’s hard to do when you cherish every word you’ve written or every scene you’ve shot. 

Terrence Malick works on another level when it comes to what he’s trying to create. He remains true to his vision and in that vision is the ever-present, ruthless honesty every moment must contain. 

I can’t imagine what that’s like as an actor.  Everything you do has to be so fierce and yet so natural, which is an accurate description of the writing I like.

(link via Image Journal)

Creativity Series: “I Stand at the Untitled Piece” by Addie Zierman

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The show at the Walker Art Center is called This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, and I am struck.

It’s the work of the first generation of artists to grow up with televisions at home, and it’s angry and beautiful and profound. Mixed media and mixed voices and lots of old, clunky TVs spinning on loops.

A question on the introductory placard pulls me down hard like a magnet: “In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of visual arts?”

I was too young in the 80s to remember much of the political turmoil. I don’t really know the stories that the art here is retelling in broad, unconventional strokes. But I know about mass media. I know about the loud, brightness of it, that heady cocktail of color and content. Ad and information all mixed up together, shaken and poured.

Home-grown in the evangelical world, I am especially aware of the way mass media has permeated Christian culture. The spirituality that I learned to swim in was steeped in how-to books and t-shirts. Bible covers, teen magazines, hit songs, ads.

The deep questions about Jesus and culture and how Christians are to be in the world bounced like pinballs around the media, louder and bigger and more forceful with each telling.

At the Walker, I stand for a long time at Doris Salcedo’s untitled piece – two stiff columns of men’s scuffed work shirts, pierced with long, sharp poles. She created it as a response to the testimonies of 40 Columbian women who saw their husbands murdered for participating in organized labor struggles.

Just shirts. Just a little plaster and some dirt. Just everyday objects, placed one on top of the other, saying something wildly profound about grief and injustice and the emptiness of loss.

In mass media Christianity, you learn this: that your life only matters if it is blown-big with passion, large-text and bold, like a front-page headline. The purpose of your life should be quick and fluorescent, ten words…twelve tops. It should pulse and sparkle like a neon sign, a city-on-a-hill turned up to a hundred thousand watts, bright as Vegas.

In mass media Christianity, the questions we ask are What are you doing for God? and How are you changing the world? We measure success with words like “revival” and “revolution” and “how many souls were saved?”

And in a faith increasingly loud with revivals and mass media and conferences and speakers, you have to wonder how it matters, this sitting quietly by the window, waiting for words.

But I just keep coming back to those shirts at the Walker. They stay with me, sharp and lonely in my mind. They are prophetic and beautiful and more powerful than a thousand newspaper headlines.

I am not a visual artist in the way of Salcedo, but I feel a kinship to her because I write, primarily, within the genre of Creative Nonfiction. Which is, in many ways, a genre of found objects.

When you are a writer of essays, of memoir, of true, rooted-in-facts kinds of things, you have to get down on your hands and knees and dig through the sand of your life. You pull out average, unimpressive moments. Dirty work shirts. Empty folding chairs. That time in kindergarten when you wore a construction paper three-cornered hat and went on an imaginary trip to Holland.

Your work has to do with choosing to believe that these unimpressive things matter. That they have lodged in your heart because there is something wholly beautiful and uniquely true about them. That God speaks less through a bullhorn or billboard than through an ordinary bush, burning wild in the desert.

Your work is largely that of seeing, digging, putting ordinary things side by side to create something simply and strikingly true. It is more than telling it how it happened. More than facts lined up one after another. It is structure. Sound. Fact connected to the current of creativity. The electric shock of meaning.

It’s the work of individual white shirts, folded and stacked, pierced and forever piercing the heart of the one who stands awe-filled next to it.

In a world that is obsessed with creating something NEW! EXTRAORDINARY! BRIGHT!, your role is less about creating the next big thing than about recognizing what no one else sees: symbol, metaphor, beauty, art.  Quiet work. Important work.

It’s like this: there are a hundred thousand images flashing by, and your job is to find the hidden thread of truth. The one that holds us all together. Pull it out, even if it tugs at your soul like stitches on a wound. Arrange it fresh and new.

Put it out there, small and strong, thin and unwavering. It is just waiting to quietly change the world.


Addie Zierman is a writer, mom, and Diet Coke enthusiast. She blogs twice a week at How to Talk Evangelical.addiezierman.com, where she’s working to redefine faith one clichè at a time.

Creativity Series: “Tossing Ferdinand Magellan” by Tyler McCabe

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Most writers I know have a pet metaphor for this station, the ultimately strange role of writer, and I suppose I do, too, though lately I have grown suspicious of it—or rather, him. I am considering tossing Magellan.

I think he originally occurred to me during a college entrance exam. I recall composing a long flowery rant about the writer as an explorer; I wrote something like, “an explorer sees the world as an oyster into which he readily forks his tongue.” (My youth blinked past the innuendo.) I hyperventilated on about, yes, lapping at that goodness.

And once I stop blushing, I admit there’s some truth to that because the world is sweet. This is a world that repays exploration.

I think Tolkien had this exploration in mind—a kind of discovery of the real—when he wrote his bit about humans refracting “a singular White,” and although I think he probably wrote that sentence like I wrote my entrance exam essay, missing its problematic undertones, I think he probably wrote it in earnest as I write (generally) in earnest, and perhaps he even wrote it next to a window overlooking sea like the one I write by now, because who can deny witness to the light shattering over water and the salt-clean air and gulls in pines, bleating? The world is sweet.

I’m sure Magellan thought so, or he wouldn’t have died trying to circumnavigate it.

But I no longer think of writing as a true exploration of a beautiful world, a discovery of the real, and here’s why: having created this art for some time, it’s occurred to me that the vista out my window is a variegated color beyond the written word. I experience the complex color sea, and I can write a sea-like sentence, sure, add rising and falling sounds, a certain swish, harp the moribund S, but I cannot write the sea as one actually experiences it. The ocean—human experience—is ornate beyond serifs.

To Tolkien I say: this white light burns my eyes.

Which isn’t to raise any more controversy than this: the writer, if anything, is not the explorer as we tend to think of him, Magellan at the prow of his ship, laying his plans upon his desk, drawing up lands as he encounters them. Something stranger is in art happening. The writer is parting darker waters.

Considering this Christianly, I’ll hijack for a moment the story of God giving Adam reign to name Earth’s animals.

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

This might be the most important parade in the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. So I apologize for this quick and somewhat distorted analysis: I believe Adam was, like any writer I can bear to be friends with, a little bored and lonely, and luckily for him, God intended all along that Adam not only explore the sweetness of the world, but alter it, reconcile himself to it, leave his shadowy strange mark on it: beginning with a syllable. Crow.

For the creator-artist and the viewer both, art is an extra mode of knowing that is just as likely to muddle Tolkien’s light as it is to coax it into spectrum. That is why we call some books good books, and also why we can’t pick The Best Book Ever. It is why we writers feel there is something left to be written: because we are not exploring the actual world in words, but through playing with words coming to situate ourselves in the actual world.

Playing with words, we organize the world, fillet it, direct it, sharpen it, slow it down, speed it up, deceive it, chop it into manageable pieces or amass it into unspeakable wonders.

Most writers will tell you they are in love with words themselves—I am in this camp—and I will venture a guess that most of us get into this business not because we are looking out windows on beautiful vistas that compel us to record them shoddily, but because the last paragraph of “Dover Beach” is so rhythmically compelling. Because the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude gives us goosebumps.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

The best creators are Adams—transfiguring one blackwing flurry into crow, for love of that open sound, soft punch.

All this to say, my first metaphor’s soured. A writer isn’t really an explorer discovering the world; what she offers is other-worldly. Her work transforms the world.

Then again, I may be tossing Magellan unfairly. Words are elastic. Maybe I need only revise the way I imagine him. Sure, a creator is like Magellan as I can picture him now: stepping from the dock and sliding off the map, returning from uncharted space, notebooks full, and changing the way we relate to the world, for better and worse, muddling and concentrating that foreign light.


Tyler McCabe is the program coordinator of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and managing editor of Image journal’s bi-weekly e-newsletter ImageUpdate. He has also written for Ruminate and SPU’s Etc. magazine.