On writing letters for other people

Some days I spend so much time writing letters and emails on behalf of other people, that I just don’t have anything to say for myself.  For the last few weeks, I have struggled to come up with interesting (or boring) things to say, and I’ve drawn a blank.  When writers give advice to wanna-be writers, the item that often tops the list is: “just do it.  Just write.” The thing is, I write all day, but it’s usually in someone else’s voice.

For example, today I wrote a bevy of letters on behalf of my boss to various young people across the country encouraging them to keep up the good work and continue studying math and science.  Anyone who knows me will find it amusing that I wrote such language as: “I am so excited to hear that you love math and science–I love it too!–and I hope that you will continue to love it as the years roll by.”  I happen to work at a math, science, and engineering college that pays me to be all sorts of enthusiastic for those disciplines, but in reality, I’m a humanities girl at heart.

Is it odd that I find it so much easier to write for other people than to write for myself?  To answer my own question, maybe it isn’t odd at all.  When I write letters for my boss, I’m not really attempting to communicate the entirety of her being but am merely reflecting that portion of her that I understand and can put into words.  When I am writing for myself, I am often stumped by the confusing, jumbled mass of my thoughts.  I ask myself: “Self, what are you thinking about right now?” and the answer is that I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about.  I often have difficulty choosing a subject to write about because the field from which I choose my subjects is incredibly vast.  When I am writing for someone else, I write from a very narrow scope that is determined by my understanding of that person and by my understanding of the purpose of the writing.  It’s a lot more manageable, and it’s easier for me to tell when I’ve nailed it.

Another interesting thought is that the more time I spend writing for other people, with my head all wrapped up in their perspective (as I see it), the harder it is for me to transition back to my own perspective.  I haven’t been terribly active with this blog for the last two weeks because I have been busy and stressed and because I have been having difficulty locating my voice.

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Stress – I has it

I usually try not to allow myself to experience stress.  You know how stress is: it creeps around the corner and stomps on top of you, in a quiet way, until all of your muscles are tense and you’re not sleeping well and you start dreaming about being a super spy under attack (or is that just me?).  Stress is insidious and awful, and I’m really not a fan of it.  When I feel it creeping in, I start to take measures to counteract it.  I might spend a little extra time reading really lame books (because they’re funny); I might paint my fingernails or my toenails, hoping that some pampering might have a calming effect; I might switch up the music in my iPod–from Muse to Enya or Beethoven or Sibelius.  The point is, when I feel it coming, I do my best to make sure stress doesn’t take up occupancy in my mind or body.

I feel stress.  There are dark circles under my eyes that even makeup won’t cover, possibly because I don’t know how to apply concealer properly.  I’ve been waking up in the night with muscle spasms in my neck and back (hence the dark circles…).  I’ve been clenching my jaw a bit too much.  Any day now, I’ll start to get snarky without being properly provoked.  I feel it coming.

Most unfortunately, I can’t exactly cut away those causes of my stress.  I have to work, I have to be a mother to my children and a wife to my husband.  I have to be a friend to my friends.  I have responsibilities at my church (Vestry member, Junior Warden, Chair of the Profile/Search Committee, member of the choir, member of the social committee (hee hee!!!), congregant, etc.  It’s a lot.), though I’ve been dropping the ball on a lot of these responsibilities lately.  I need balance, some moments when my time is my own, when I am simply Kelly rather than Assistant (and chief proofreader and quasi-media liaison), Mommy, Wife, Jr. Warden, etc.  I feel like I’m slipping away, even though I’m not.  That, to me, is the most awful thing about stress.  It’s like all the weeds choking out the plants in my garden.  It’s so easy to get covered, entangled, choked out by all of the various responsibilities, often conflicting, of one’s life.  How can I be a good mother and a good employee simultaneously?  What’s more important to my family, ultimately?  Where is the lesser evil/greater good?

Actually, it’s a budgeting issue.  I have a limited amount of time and energy every day, and all of the things that I need to do far exceed that daily budget, and decisions have to be made.  What are the priorities; which balls can I drop? It’s rather like deciding which bills need to be paid and which can be put off for a time, and it’s just as devastating, isn’t it?

So, to lower my stress levels I am (1) writing about it, (2) listening to Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters album, (3) reading, when I have a chance, Tristan’s Loins, believe it or not.  My husband thinks I’m totally lame for reading romance novels, but they really are stress-relieving to me.  I’m not saying Tristan’s Loins is at all a good book, but it isn’t nearly as terrible as I thought it would be, considering it was free and it’s about a romance novel character come to life by magical means.  Actually, it’s really funny, and it pokes fun at a ridiculous genre in a really great way.  So take that, stress!

Oh, and here’s the awesomeness that is Truly, Madly Viking.  Having mentioned it in my previous post, I really felt the need to share exactly how wonderful it is.  I particularly like the fur-lined gauntlets on a shirtless man.  Anyone else think his belt is a little WWE?  So fancy!

Cover image, Truly, Madly Viking by Sandra Hill

Speaking of terrible books…

I have already established that free books are often bad books, but I was faintly shocked this morning when I delved once more into nook’s free books section and discovered all the nonsense that is available.  I understand that it isn’t nice to make fun of people, but seriously, who are these people who write these books?  What in the world motivates them?  Anyway, I haven’t read any of these (yet), but it really makes me happy to ‘own’ a copy that I ‘purchased’ for free.  Besides, my sister would really get a kick out of some of the titles and covers.

I’ll start with the least bizarre and make my way down the list to the coup de grace.

Cover image, Love's Magic: Book One in the Boadicea Series by Traci Hall

I’m fairly certain I’ll actually read this book.  From the publisher’s description, it seems to be a combination of medieval romance/fantasy, and I hold a soft spot in my heart for fantasy novels.  I’m hoping for a dragon, but we’ll see.

Cover image, Undeniable by Gayle Eden

I picked this one up because it was free and because the cover image was distinctly creepy.  Doesn’t that dude kinda look like Keanu Reeves?  Isn’t it strange that his intense scowly face is superimposed over the image of the skinny chick holding an oddly demure pose?  And there was a hint of mystery involved–Barnes and Noble did not offer any information about this book except that it’s a “sensual regency romance,” whatever that means.  Even the reader reviews–usually full of delightful phrases such as “I’d read this over and over, if I could” (seriously… what’s stopping you?)–were unnaturally slim on details.  I want to read this book to find out if it’s as creepy as it appears.

Cover image, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer by Rita Hestand

And now it starts to get ridiculous.  Readers who have liked Undeniable also liked Rita Hestand’s Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.  Why?  I have no idea!  I don’t think I can stand to read this one, but the fact that it exists really makes me happy.

Cover image, Tristan's Loins by Karolyn Cairns

When the book is named Tristan’s Loins, you know it’s got to be bad good.  When the book is about an author who creates a twelfth century hero character who somehow comes alive and peppers the author with complaints about of her writing choices–why is the heroine so annoying?–it’s even worse better.  Honestly, the only reason I purchased this free nook book was so I could send it to my sister as a recommendation.  This one might just beat Truly Madly Viking for the title of  lamest most awesome romance story ever.  Well, it would win if the following book didn’t exist.  But it does.

Cover image, I Married an Alien by Emma Daniels and Ethan Somerville

Honestly, what is there to say about this?  It took two people to write this book?  What manner of crazy went into designing that cover?  Is the lead character named Broncanous? Broncaho?  So here’s my real response: WTF mate?!

Also, I Married an Alien reminds me of this:

I really don’t know writing at all (does anyone?) – shower thoughts

As someone with relatively few talents, I have tended to clutch to my heart the one or two that I possess, quietly and internally considering them an adequate raison d’être while outwardly feeling inadequate on a near constant basis.  It’s a problem.  The thing is, I have a hard time talking to people.  The thing is, if you put me in front of a keyboard, I suddenly feel capable of a greatness that I do not otherwise possess.  The thing is, what is important is not that I actually achieve any sort of greatness on a regular basis but that I am actually occasionally capable of it.  Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.

Oh God, I’m being neurotic again.

Anyway.  A lot of my thoughts come to me in the shower.  I’m not sure what it is about the shower that makes it a great fermentation chamber for thought, but it works for me.  Steam, hot water, nice smelling soaps, time, that pitter-patter sound of water falling against the FRP siding in my ghetto shower all combine together to create a time and space in which thoughts can bounce around and sometimes coalesce in my otherwise scattered mind.  This morning, among various non-thought reflections (ugh, tired…. ugh, back hurts… ugh, morning… etc.), I thought about the process of writing, how I write, how other people write (how would I know?), and whether I can ever know that what I write is actually true.

I edit while I write, a simultaneous process.  I’ll start to write a sentence and then I’ll stop for a while, looking up and to the right, twitching my fingers about, tapping them lightly on the keyboard, perhaps creating a connection between the pitter-patter sound of the keyboard and the sound of water in my shower.  Who knows?  The process happens so quickly, so unconsciously, I suppose.  It’s slippery, like a well-used bar of soap.  Writing, to me, is a process of taking my often nebulous ideas about my self or my life and translating them into English, the only language I know.

It is definitely a matter of translation.  For example: when walking in the rain earlier this afternoon, I reflected on the singular pleasure I experience when rain falls with a light splat on my nose.  The transcript of that thought would read only “Hm! Nice!”  A film of that thought sequence would include a close up on my nose while the rain drop went SPLAT!  Then would follow a montage of other moments from my life when rain has fallen softly on my nose: SPLAT, SPLAT, SPLAT! ending with a lingering shot of me smiling slightly at the fond, wry memory.  The film would be a very accurate depiction of my actual thought patterns–they tend to be more visual than verbal–but I just don’t have a videographer following me around at every moment helping me to make sense of my thoughts.  When I write, I think back on those moments that are true, and I attempt to take them out of the realm of indistinct impressions and into the bright, definite, black and white world of written language.  I hope that these moments remain true throughout the translation process, but how can I know?

Claremont the beautiful

Southern California is not generally known for its beautiful skies.  During the summer, I often cannot see the foothills that are, you will notice, not very far away.  Smog collects against the hills, bringing close, hot, awful days and stunningly beautiful sunsets.  During spring and autumn, however, the two quasi-seasons (for we don’t really have seasons here, at least not proper ones) during which we experience the blessed, if brief, kiss of rain, the smog is occasionally washed away.  Immediately following a rain storm, the clouds begin to break apart to allow the clear, blue sky to show through the cracks.

After the rains, Claremont, CA

If we are very lucky, huge, puffy, white clouds will stick around for a few hours.  I like these clouds because they seem so full of promise.  On those summer days when it is over 100 degrees and the air is dreadfully still, we will often get these huge white (ish… they appear slightly brown when viewed through the smoggy haze) thunderheads burgeoning up behind the mountains, but they are so far away.  The puffy clouds after a rain are close, almost touchable, and are somehow comforting compared to those sinister-seeming thunderheads.  Puffy clouds mean no harm.  One can appreciate their beauty without having to consider the wild, untamed, stark, often violent beauty of nature.

Clouds and construction, together at last.

The picture below shows my favorite thing about huge, white clouds: billowy, blindingly white mottled with lovely shades of gray and blue and pink.

It’s supposed to rain again tonight, so I’m looking forward to more days of beautiful skies.

From deepest woe I cry to thee… Oh Lent, I miss you.

In a recent email to a friend, I mentioned that I vastly prefer the music of Lent to the music of Eastertide.  Obviously, I’m just going to have to shore up all of that lamentation and penitence for next year.  To tide me over, however, I will here present a sampling of some of my favorite Lenten music.  If you play the videos embedded below, you’ll notice a certain trend.  My favorite Lenten music is full of drama and honesty.  Lent is not a time for smugness, and I have to admit that I revel in all that honest soul-searching.  However odd it is, Lent is the one time of year that I feel almost normal.

As an example, here’s the text of verse three of “Creator of the Earth and Skies”: “We have not loved you: far and wide, the wreckage of our hatred spreads, and evils wrought by human pride recoil on unrepentant heads.”  I couldn’t find a performance of the hymn to post, but it’s Hymn 148 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, words by David W. Hughes (1911-1967), Uffingham tune.  Anyway, what I like about this hymn, along with many of my favorites from the Lent section of the hymnal, is that it strips away the veneer that we use to cover our humanity, that lovely fig leaf of self-delusion that we use to convince ourselves that we are naturally good.  I’m not entirely certain why I get so annoyed by this veneer, but I do.  When I encounter it in life or in hymns, my fingers itch to point it out as folly, to tear it away.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s verse 3 from “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope in doctrine, one in charity.”  (Words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), music by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), St. Gertrude)  I infinitely prefer the version of humanity and Christianity offered by Hughes, because that’s what I see on a daily basis.  I can’t recall ever looking at the whole picture of humanity and supposing that we were united in charity.

I’ve divided these music selections into three groups: (1) hymns that focus on individual penitence, (2) hymns that focus on how much it sucks to be Jesus, and (3) choral anthems that carry the themes of Lent.

1.

“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” – BWV38.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite from among the two hymns featured in this section.  This hymn, whose German title is shown above (from the original words by Martin Luther in 1524) is styled as “From deepest woe I cry to thee” in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 from an English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1863) that was slightly altered for the hymnal.  The words beautifully encapsulate the themes of Lent: penitence and the acknowledgement both of God’s grace and mercy and of our own unworthiness. My favorite verse is the second:

Thou grantest pardon through thy love;
thy grace alone availeth.
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast themselves of aught,
but must confess thy grace hath wrought
whate’er in them is worthy.

 Perhaps I should explain a bit of my theological background in order to shed some light on this reflection.  I grew up in a funky church that emphasized works and glossed over that whole faith/grace/all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God bit.  As an early teen, I switched to a somewhat evangelical church that comprehended a better balance between works and faith, but, both because of my earlier background and because of the twisty ways teenage minds shape and bend theological messages, I began to view God as implacable–no matter how much I repented, I still felt condemned for my sins, unable to accept the grace of God.  Now, I could spend an awful lot of time attempting to work out all of the intricacies of that one sentence, and maybe I will at a later time.  For now, suffice it to say that I was still attempting to earn my salvation through good works, and I was never able to be quite good enough to attain it.  After I switched to the Episcopal Church, I had the good fortune to interact with a priest who felt strongly about grace, and I began to understand just why it’s so difficult to accept it.

We human beings hate feeling grateful or obliged to someone else.  It is an extremely difficult emotion for us to manage.  From early childhood, we want to be independent, to do things all by ourselves, to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished.  My elder daughter is almost three, and she has reached the independent stage with a vengeance.  She wants to climb the stairs all by herself and put her shoes on all by herself, and she becomes incredibly frustrated when she is not able to do so.  As we grow into adulthood, we like to think that we cast off all of the quirks of childhood, but we do not.  We yearn to be acknowledged for the things we have done, to have others recognize that we did them “all by myself,” and it is almost shameful for us to have to admit those occasions when we have received timely assistance from others.  It is as though we are convinced that there is no value in accomplishing some task if one does not do it entirely by oneself.  But how foolish is that?  When was the last time you accomplished anything entirely by yourself?  I would be nothing without the assistance of my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, etc.  Even the very few things that I do well I cannot really claim: I write well, but isn’t that largely because of the efforts of one Frank Jansson (my high school English teacher)?

If it is difficult for us to acknowledge an obligation or gratefulness to another person for assistance in our day to day lives, how much more difficult is it for us to acknowledge that our salvation (however we comprehend it) is entirely outside our control.  I still struggle with it.  At the evangelical church I attended, we teens in the youth group were taught that each sin we committed was another nail piercing Jesus’ flesh–that if we could stop sinning, he could stop suffering.  As an adult, I view that teaching as patently ridiculous.  First, we really can’t stop sinning because it’s in our nature to be schmucks sometimes.  Second, Christ died once–it isn’t a continual sacrifice, it’s a continual redemption.  When we repent, God doesn’t say, “Um, let me think about it… I’ll get back to you later when I decide whether or not you deserve to be forgiven for that one.”  Instead, our forgiveness and atonement is already there, just waiting for us to accept the gift, because we never deserve to be forgiven, but we are forgiven regardless.

During Lent, we are encouraged to take an honest look at our lives and to reflect with penitence on the need for redemption and the beautiful gift of mercy God gives us.  This season of reflection prepares us for the yearly celebration of this gift at Easter.  I have a tendency to live in Lenten ways all the year through, because I find such comfort in the idea that God loved me enough to make such a sacrifice that no matter how much of a schmuck I will ever be, that unconditional love will never fail.  I no longer believe that God is implacable, unwilling or unable to forgive my great transgressions.  Instead, I happily believe that no matter how much nonsense I dish out, God is more than capable of forgiving it.

“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun” – John Donne (1631-1673), Dresden, arr. John Ness Beck (1930-1987).

I expended all of my theological mumbo-jumbo in discussing the first hymn of this section, so I’ll just highlight my favorite verse from this hymn, from a poem by John Donne.  Verse 3:

I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
and having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

2.

“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” – Johann Heermann (1585-1647), tr. Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Herzliebster Jesu, arr. J. S. Bach (1685-1750).

I’m not quite as fond of the ‘boy, it sucks to be Jesus’ hymns as the hymns from the first section.  Honestly, I think a meditation on the sufferings of Christ can be overdone.  However, I truly love the two hymns I’m posting here.  My favorite verse from “Ah, holy Jesus” is verse 5:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

“O sacred head, sore wounded” – Robert Bridges (1899), Passion Chorale

For true Lenten drama, you can’t really outdo “O sacred head, sore wounded.”  My favorite verse is verse 4, which is starred in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (meaning it can be omitted).  Thankfully, we sing all 5 verses at my church.

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.

3.

I sing in the choir at my church, and I just adore the music we do during Lent.  I find that I cannot get sick of renaissance motets.  Anyway, here are two of my favorite Lenten anthems.

“Call to Remembrance” – Richard Farrant (c. 1530-1580)

“God So Loved the World” – John Stainer (1840-1901)

If you made it through all of this giant post (and watched all those videos), cheers, and thank you for your patience!

Happiness is… [a cookie, a good book, self-acceptance] – a thought fragment

I often think about happiness–what it is, what it could be, whether I’ve achieved it, etc.  My understanding of happiness changes frequently.  Sometimes, happiness is very complex, and it seems impossible that I could ever achieve it, and maybe contentedness is the best I can do.  And sometimes happiness seems to be as simple as a cookie or a dirty diaper (not mine), that if someone were to give me a cookie or if my daughter were actually to dirty a diaper, I might be happy.

I am not sure that I would want to live in a world that had a solid definition of happiness.  I rather like the uncertainty we all face in trying to find it, whatever it might mean to each of us individually.  I could not be happy with someone else’s version of happiness–an evening in with The Bachelor and a bowl of microwave popcorn, perhaps–and I doubt other people could be happy with mine.

I have noticed a certain trend in my own thinking about happiness.  When I am generally pleased with myself, not necessarily in a smug way but in a “Great job, Kelly, you haven’t been an asshole lately” kind of way, happiness seems simple and attainable or already attained.  When I am plagued by self-doubt (or self-pity), I find myself wondering if I can ever be happy or have ever been happy or even if I deserve to be happy, wondering if all of those moments when I thought I was happy were just evidence of rampant self-delusion.  So that, to me, is the key.  Self-acceptance breeds happiness in me, and self-doubt is a blight on my happiness.

This all seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But when I get caught up in my squirrelly little mind, when I worry that I really am an asshole at heart and that I’ve finally found proof (honestly, just the fact that I am constantly on the lookout for proof…), it seems a lot less obvious that these negative mental habits push me farther and farther from my natural human goal: happiness.   I’ll have to think a bit more about whether there is a significant enough value in keeping a tight watch on my suspected inner asshole to justify the potential occasional sacrifice of my happiness.  Really, what does it gain me?  Am I really likely to turn into a raging jerk the instant I stop my vigilance?… I don’t know.

Those who know me are probably reading this post thinking, seriously, Kel, neurotic much?  When I try to take an objective view, I can see that it’s absolutely ridiculous that I spend so much time and energy battling the fear that I’m a total jerk.  But I keep doing it, so I must have some reason why.  All that to say, yeah… I really am that neurotic.

And, just because Easter’s right around the corner, here’s my favorite picture of Jesus. Ever.

Jesus had a puppy and a bunny