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Lenten Splendor

I didn’t even wear a coat for the walk to my coffee shop today. The air is honey-toned and soft. The sky is so vividly blue it flashes in, arresting as flame through the windows of the lecture hall in the morning, drawing eye and heart into its promising warmth. Springtime is a dream blooming up at the edge of winter today. Daffodils huddle under the woven black of the bare, tangled tree limbs. The earth broods, damp, close to waking. The first snowdrops star the dark carpets under the trees. And birdsong wakes me early in the morning. The life of this freshened day, the light, the searing blue, draws my sight up and outward constantly. From work, from screen, from dreams, my consciousness is drawn away from the clamor of my student life to a great, silent glory. I am challenged to attention by this beauty. The color of it is a kind of demand upon my eyes, a request I fully answer with my wholly given attention. Who could refuse an invitation to such magnificence? Funny then, that Shrove Tuesday, the day in the church year when believers around the world prepare to abstain in some way from earthy luxury, should fall amidst such splendor. No rain, or dampened skies, no dim, dark hours are present this afternoon to match the self-denial so associated with the opening of Lent. Tomorrow, I’ll walk up to the altar in my church, confess my mortality, and receive the mark of ashes on my forehead. I’ll remember my sin. I’ll try to fast in some way for forty whole days. Incongruous, it might seem at first, to begin this Lenten season of self-denial just as springtime wakens in all its opulence.

A Poem for Jamie

This is a poem I wrote for my sweet wife a few years ago. It was published in the third volume of The Molehill and I post it here because it's February, when people talk about love and stuff. You are beautiful in ways You cannot see. Beautiful In light and motion and grace, In patience, in the little Smile that is your first instinct When you’re anxious or happy, Or shy---even sad. In fact, Your loveliest smile may be The one you show me then: When all that is left is you, When at last your strength is spent, When the plant has lost its bloom, When you can no longer pretend That your fear has no power; Then, my love, you reach the end And I can see your finest flower.

Guest Post: Always a King or Queen: C. S. Lewis on Childhood (Part 2)

[This week's guest post (in two parts) is by Matthew Aughtry, whom you may recall created this short film, and this "What is Hutchmoot" short. Check out Matthew's Vimeo channel to see his beard and his other work.] Read Part 1 here. In studying Lewis’s life one finds that it is no secret that he was not very popular within the corner of academia that he occupied and The Chronicles of Narnia certainly did not help his case. Even J. R. R. Tolkien, his Oxford colleague who had written a children’s book himself, was not fond of the series. Yet a large portion of the world was very fond of them, especially children. Lewis did not worry over this fact because he knew that a good book for children is simply a good book, period. He once wrote in an essay,

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Perhaps some think Lewis’s chronicles are in the category of books you should eventually feel ashamed of, but it seems that many more do not. Indeed their endurance in popular culture is at least some testament to this. Many adults must consider these books still worth reading since they continue to pass them on to students and even to their own children. Perhaps one of the things that children find most appealing about these stories is that the protagonists are always similar in age. Moreover, the Narnian tales may be particularly engaging for children because they not only tell stories centered around young boys and girls but the narratives themselves place great importance on what they do, how they act or react to certain situations, and the choices they make. In Narnia, any boy can become a brave warrior and any girl is capable of becoming a wise leader. In their ordinary lives children may see themselves as ancillary to the primary story of the world, to its hard choices and the difficult decisions of adults, but in the world of Narnia they have the weight of responsibility thrust upon them.

How The Voyage of the Peacock Came to Be

Here's a painting I finished last month, called The Voyage of the Peacock. It's 20"x 20". I shared an in-progress shot with you in January and so I thought some of you might be interested to see how it turned out. This isn't really about how the idea of The Voyage came to be, but the formation of the painting itself. Basically I'm going to take you through the different stages of the painting and what went on in my mind as I was painting it. So let's start, shall we? (Click on any image below for a larger and more complete view).

Song of the Week: “Line in the Sand”

Andy Gullahorn is hilarious. "Skinny Jeans," quick wit, self-deprecation, all of that. But if you only know Andy as a funny songwriter, you've completely missed the boat on an exceptional artist. Beyond The Frame was released last year and featured one stirring track after another, each marked by Andy's incredible ability to turn the song's meaning or perspective on a dime. The end result is always striking, and this song, which Andy sang at the last Local Show, is a great example. “Line in the Sand” by Andy Gullahorn from the album Beyond the Frame [audio:LineintheSand.mp3] This week, use coupon code "Gully" to get 20% off of Beyond the Frame in the Rabbit Room store.

The Charniaz Express

Once in a while, I get to ride the Charniaz Express. Nestled in the Alps between the villages of Les Gets and Morzine, close to the border of France and Switzerland, it is a chairlift with a magic all its own. At the top, beyond the tangle of battered down pistes and unspoilt powder, there is a little mountain hut and a chiminea with a roaring fire. The hot chocolate is rich and sweet with swirls of fresh cream that turn liquid on your tongue and the air is so cold and pure it almost hurts to breathe. It's my favourite place in the whole world. If you get there at just the right time you can sit in a battered yellow deckchair in the snowy silence and watch as dozens of hot air balloons rise from the valley floor below and float like bubbles between the glistening mountain peaks on either side, vivid colours dancing on a backdrop of white snow and blue sky. On other days the view is cloaked by the wildness of an alpine storm. As silence gives way to howling wind, nature flexes her muscles in an explosive display of raw and untameable passion. Braced against the needles of ice and snow that sting even the smallest area of exposed skin it is impossible not to surrender to the awe that presses insistently on your soul. Then there are the days when the clouds are low. From your vantage point on the mountain you find yourself looking down at a dense canopy which slices the landscape in two, separating the majesty of what is above from the misty grey valley that has been swallowed up in cloud.

A Rejection Letter

Dear aspiring young "Christian Greys," I'll be honest, this latest trend has left me bewildered, heartbroken, and very afraid for you. I'm afraid because the things that have hurt and broken you, leaving you less than you were ever meant to be, are now being applauded, encouraged, and dressed up as love. I'm afraid because the road you are on is a dangerous one, and it's not going to end the way you hope. I'm sorry that life has been unkind to you. I'm sorry that you've been encouraged to settle for money when you needed so much more. I'm sorry that pain has twisted your idea of love until all you have left is a distorted reflection in a broken mirror. And I feel I must tell you something else.

Valentine’s Day: We Need Not Go Far

Late in the pre-kid dawn of our marriage, Lyndsay and I drove a packed-to-the-windows Honda Accord named “Donovan” from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California---one last hoorah before the great chains of children. It was our first summer off together as teachers, so we had little money, but we did have weeks of time to stay out West drifting freely between National Parks and downtown hostels. Expecting the wide open splendor of the trails to provide fresh inspiration for songwriting, I bought a Martin Backpacker and kept a small notebook at hand. The real inspiration, though, didn’t come out of the free wilderness, but instead from the cramped confines of Donovan, who held us together and moved us forward through twenty questions and road rage, babyfaced naps and tense interrogations, coffee and Funyuns, wonder and back pain. A continuously moving vehicle is a great image for marriage: the commitment to travel together leaves no good escape, or, as David Mitchel once pointed out to me, “At least not without someone getting really hurt.” At one point we weathered a dark fight while cruising the Pacific Coast Highway, but Donovan kept us going through the venomous jabs, through the cold silence, through irritated boredom and impatience, until we reached camp and enough forgiveness to sleep on. The next day we drove back out to see all the beauty we had missed and eventually a song came. I would go so far as to say that weeks later when we returned home from our exotic excursion, that experience helped us to become a little readier to move towards that next level of being tied down. That sounds terrible, but it was game changing for us. It is one of the most vivid places in our marriage where we began to see that some of the most beautiful, freeing revelations and experiences come not from liberty, but from limitations---like cars, marriage, and parenthood. Recently I pieced together an amatuer home-movie music video of footage from our trip. Little known fact: while the song was born of the experience I mentioned, it was also influenced by a Pixar movie released that summer, so much so that a small part of our trip involved recreating one of its scenes shortly after we had stood outside the gates of Pixar studios in Oakland trying to convince the guard to give us a tour. Look for a brief easter egg in the video.

Jill Phillips and Getting Beyond Your Own Story

They say the first album is always about loss. Whether midstream or shortly thereafter, an artist's first album is typically about loss of some kind---love lost, dreams shattered, expectations unmet. After interviewing well over 1,000 artists and reviewing God knows how many releases, the maxim is true that some sort of grief is the central subject for most songwriters when first starting out. The reason should be obvious, since songwriting, as with any creative endeavor, often begins as a cathartic exercise. There's a working out, a processing that happens when I write, when painters paint, when sculptors mold and shape. As I write, I'm figuring out who I am both before, during, and after the event that drew me to my desk. We naturally gravitate to our own outlet to work through the situations we find ourselves in, both good and bad. After the first album, other subjects arise. In my experience, the progression begins at the heart and moves outward from there. I often find artists moving through their past, family trauma, or other more joyful experiences in their second or third albums. Many veteran artists eventually move to topics outside of themselves, topics they are passionate about regarding politics or the state of the world. After several releases, many veteran artists will begin to sing solely about the world as they see it and speak to grander themes of love, violence, beauty, and what it means to be human. I love this last stage, but it's rare to see a songwriter arrive outside of him/herself. It's no secret that making a living as a songwriter and performing artist is a tough gig, and only the strong survive. I don't have any concrete figures, but the run for most artists has to be an album or two at most for the average length of a recording career. What that means is that the music we most commonly come in contact with is likely closer to ground zero in content---dealing, once again, with issues of the heart. Then there are artists like Jill Phillips.

Now Available: Martin & Marco

If you're a reader of the Molehill, you'll recognize Jonny Jimison's name. To date he's been a contributor to all three volumes, and his work has been featured here on the Rabbit Room a couple of times in the past (here and here). We're fans of his work and we couldn't be more proud to carry his new graphic novel, Martin & Marco, in the Rabbit Room store. We're pretty sure he's gone insane too because he's selling the books for just $10 each. That's a crazy deal for a graphic novel, and this binding is a high-quality piece of work---those who Kickstarted it should be proud. Jonny sold us on the book immediately when he described it as The Lord of the Rings meets Calvin and Hobbes. It's the first of a five part series called The Dragon Lord Saga, and that description isn't far from the truth. It's an epic quest filled with cartoon strip hijinks and humor. Great for kids and adult-kids alike. But don't take our word for it, grab your copy here and find out for yourself. Click here to read about the genesis of the project.

Charles Williams’ ebooks

Charles Williams is one of those guys who seems to be perpetually on my "Read This Next!" shelf. Almost every time I talk with Lanier Ivester there comes a point in the conversation when her chin drops and her mouth hangs wide open for three or four minutes while she processes the information that I have not yet read The Place of the Lion. Sorry, Lanier, it's still true. He's still the Inkling about which I haven't one. I know there are a lot of others out there in my position and today I'm here to help. Part of the problem is that his books are hard to find, but I just heard that Open Road Media has now published ebooks of seven of Williams' titles, including War in Heaven, and Descent into Hell. If you're the e-reading type, check them out. If Lanier buys me a Kindle, I promise to read The Place of the Lion immediately.

Guest Post: Always a King or Queen: C. S. Lewis on Childhood (Part 1)

[This week's guest post (in two parts) is by Matthew Aughtry, whom you may recall created this short film, and this "What is Hutchmoot" short. Check out Matthew's Vimeo channel to see his beard and his other work.] This past summer I took a class at Fuller Theological Seminary on the theology of C. S. Lewis. In many ways I can trace my journey to seminary back to Lewis’s influence on me even from childhood, so it was a wonderful opportunity to re-read some of my favorite writings from him and read other books I’d been meaning to read for years (as a result I read Till We Have Faces for the first time and it quickly became my favorite of his writings). As part of the class we had to write a research paper on a topic of our choice, assuming the professor approved. I had several ideas but finally landed on an exploration of Lewis’s view of childhood. Since the class covered Lewis’s life as well as his writings, I thought it would be interesting to see what could be gleaned about this subject from both spheres. No doubt the fact that I was due to become a father in September affected my choice.

Matthew Perryman Jones & the Nashville Ballet: “…but the flowers have yet to come”

Last year, right at the last minute, I heard the strange tale of Matthew Perryman Jones teaming up with the Nashville Ballet for a live-music and dance performance called ". . . but the flowers have yet to come." I have to confess that ballet is something I tend to view with a narrowed eye, but I didn't want to pass up the chance to see Matthew performing live, so I snatched up a couple of tickets. It didn't hurt that taking my wife to the ballet made for a great Valentine's Day date. As it turned out, I got way more than I bargained for. The show began with two other dance performances, one of which was an interpretation of Anton Checkov's relationship with his wife through letters and was incredible---alone worth the price of admission. The main attraction, though, was the Perryman Jones performance. Matthew and a full band played some of my favorite songs off both the new album and the previous, while the Nashville Ballet took the main stage. I'm no good at knowing what I'm looking at when I watch dance, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. If you know Matthew's music, you know it's bittersweet and full of longing, frustration, and passion. The dance captures those feelings perfectly. I was mesmerized. I was also shocked at how much work and creativity had gone into a production that only saw three or four lightly attended performances. It just seemed wrong for that many people to work so hard at something only to have it enjoyed so briefly. So it was with considerable excitement that I heard the show was coming back this Valentine's Day weekend. There are only three performances: February 13th, 14th, and 15th. If you are in Nashville and need something awesome to do for Valentine's Day. This is it. Check out the "Making of" and teaser videos below. Don't miss it.

This Little Light of Mine

It was intended to be a simple project: recondition an old, rusted, industrial light fixture, and install it as the porch light on the small office/art space I recently built (The Asylum). From the wiring, rewiring, custom cutting a new gasket seal, to finding and retro-fitting a new socket into an old housing, I have had to assemble, backtrack, disassemble, reconfigure, and, not least of all, resist the urge to smash the thing to the ground out of total exasperation. Avoiding any obvious wine parables, summoning new light out of an old light fixture has been anything but simple. Nothing is easy, not even shining. I discovered the fixture years ago in my mother-in-law’s Louisiana back yard. Hidden not under a bushel, as the Sunday school song goes, I found it beneath an interlocking mat of weeds in a mound of fire ant dirt. I extracted the piece, not with the intention of reconditioning it for use, but for the sake of its aesthetic---its color, shape, curves, maverick appeal---and for its possibilities. Only years later, after I had begun construction on my office, did it occur to me that I already had that which I needed for a porch light: the piece had been collecting years of dust and brown recluse spiders on a low shelf in my tool shed. Surely, I thought, even with zero experience, I could manage to coax light from the rusted, decrepit fixture.

Song of the Week: “The Ending”

It's easy to reach for Chrome or Birds of Relocation when you want to listen to Eric Peters since those albums resonate with a powerful authenticity, but some of his finest material is found on albums like 2003's Miracle of Forgetting. "The Ending" is the album's lead track and it's also our song of the week, a reminder of Eric's extended history of writing beautiful, honest songs that meet us where we are and remind us of a greater hope. In addition to the album stream below, check out this acoustic version via Under the Radar as well. “The Ending” by Eric Peters from the album Miracle of Forgetting [audio:TheEnding.mp3] Use coupon code "THEENDING" to get 20% off the album this week.