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Jonathan Rogers

Author

Dr. Jonathan Rogers is the author of fewer than forty-seven books including the Wilderking Trilogy, The Charlatan's Boy, and The Terrible Speed of Mercy. He teaches literature at New College in Franklin, Tennessee, and always thinks he's the best looking man in the room (he is).

Why Beauty Matters: An Evening Conversation with Dana Gioia

Next Tuesday, April 1st, the poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is coming to Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville to speak on “Why Beauty Matters: The Significance of Beauty in Art, Faith, and Politics.” The event is being put on by The Trinity Forum. Tickets are $10 (register in advance), and the event includes a reception with excellent hors d’oeuvres and conversation. I’ve been to a couple of these Trinity Forum events, and they are very fun and stimulating. Here’s the link to register.

Date:
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Location:
Montgomery Bell Academy
4001 Harding Pike
Nashville, TN 37925

 

To whet your appetite, here’s one of my favorite poems by Dana Gioia:

The Country Wife

She makes her way through the dark trees
Down to the lake to be alone.
Following their voices on the breeze,
She makes her way. Through the dark trees
The distant stars are all she sees.
They cannot light the way she’s gone.
She makes her way through the dark trees
Down to the lake to be alone.

The night reflected on the lake,
The fire of stars changed into water.
She cannot see the winds that break
The night reflected on the lake
But knows they motion for her sake.
These are the choices they have brought her:
The night reflected on the lake,
The fire of stars changed into water.

A Tricycle, A Leg Trap

My friend Hilton grew up poor in South Alabama. He and his older brother didn’t have a lot of toys, but they did have one tricycle to share between them. Only Hilton’s brother wasn’t much of a sharer. He rarely gave five-year-old Hilton a turn, and when Hilton did get on the tricycle, his brother was likely as not to knock him off and ride it himself. Which made it hard to relax and enjoy any tricycle time he got.

One day the two boys were playing at a creek not too far from the house when the older brother stepped on a leg trap—picture a snap-jawed bear trap from the cartoons, but smaller and without the teeth. Still plenty painful, though, on a little boy’s bare foot. The older brother howled in agony while Hilton sweated and grunted, trying to open the jaws of the trap enough to free the foot. But he was only five. He couldn’t do it. The two boys together, in fact, couldn’t open the trap. “Go get mama!” the brother bawled. “Get her quick!”

Snowman

[Editor's note: This one is a couple of weeks old, but the "everywhere but Nashville" line still holds true.]

This week’s snow and ice (everywhere but Nashville) has made me think of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets–”Boy at the Window,” by Richard Wilbur.

 

“Boy at the Window”

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

 

Bonus media: My daughter, a devotee of the movie Frozen, introduced me to this different take on what it means to be a snowman:

Public Lectures on Lewis, Tolkien, O’Connor, Dostoyevsky

Baylor University’s Ralph Wood is one of the great Flannery O’Connor scholars. His Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South has done more to shape my thinking about O’Connor’s work than any other secondary source. He’s just as strong on Lewis and Tolkien. Also Dostoyevsky. He is the best sort of literary scholar: while his colleagues in English departments throughout the land are going to work on the texts, Dr. Wood gets out of the way and lovingly allows the texts to do their work.

Dr. Wood will be giving four public lectures in Nashville on Monday and Tuesday of next week (March 10-11). These are going to be great. All four lectures are free and open to the public. If you are in Middle Tennessee, you really need to attend as many of these as possible. I insist.

Here’s the lineup:

Monday, March 10, noon to 1pm
“C.S. Lewis and the Matter of Moral Formation for Physicians”
Vanderbilt University Medical School, Light Hall 208
2215 Garland Avenue (615) 343-4664

Monday, March 10, 5:45 to 7pm
“C.S. Lewis on Driving the Devil out with Laughter”
Montgomery Bell Academy, Lowry Hall, Dead Poets’ Society Room
4001 Harding Road (615) 298-5514

Tuesday, March 11, noon to 1pm
“J.R.R. Tolkien: Writer for Our Time of Terror”
Aquinas College
4210 Harding Road (615) 297-7545

Tuesday, March 11, 6:30 to 8pm
“Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Christ Pantocrator”
Vanderbilt University, Benton Chapel
411 21st Ave S. (615) 322-2457

Here Be Dragons

[Editor's note: Tomorrow is the last day to pre-order the Rabbit Room Press edition of Jonathan's Wilderking Trilogy. Pre-orders will start shipping soon. Everyone else will have to wait for the books' public release.]

At the most recent Hutchmoot, Andrew Peterson and I gave a talk called “Writing Close to the Earth.” Andrew got on the subject of sehnsucht, that unexplained and unsatisfied longing that was for C.S. Lewis such an important clue to the meaning of the universe. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is punctuated by moments in which some earthly experience awakens him to the truth that there is more to the world than mere earthly experience. A little model garden in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—seemingly commonplace things—each gave Lewis “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.

In Andrew’s words, these episodes are “moments that are lodged in our memories as significant, though we don’t always understand why—moments where the veil is lifted for a moment, and we’re left with longing, or with a new revelation of the wild beauty of the world.”

Andrew asked the audience to describe such moments in their own lives. There were a lot of mountain vistas, sunsets and sunrises, encounters with music and with art. For me, the question brought back a memory that sheds light on all the fiction I’ve ever written.

A Valentine’s Day Meditation

“I was terribly shy as a boy,” the man said. “Excruciatingly shy. But in third grade there was a girl I liked, and somehow I mustered up the courage to tell her so on the school bus. And she said she liked me too.” He smiled a wistful little smile as he told it. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She liked me too. So I thought I’d strike while the iron was hot. I asked her if she’d like to be my girlfriend. She said ‘Sure.’ It was like I had been transformed in a moment, from a loser to somebody’s boyfriend. Even my big brother noticed something different about me when I got off the bus.”

He paused as if to savor that memory before going on. “The next day,” he said, “I picked some flowers and gave them to the little girl on the playground. Everybody stared at me, but I didn’t care at all. Except that the little girl stared too, just like the others. ‘What are these for?’ she said. ‘They’re for you,’ I said. ‘Because you’re my girlfriend.’ The girl’s mouth dropped open in horror and she shrugged her shoulders and gave the other kids one of those looks that said, ‘This boy’s crazy.’

The Original Feechie

We’re now taking pre-orders for the Wilderking books. Order now, and you’ll get your books in early March, two or three weeks ahead of the April 1st release date. Besides getting your books early, you will also be helping to fund the first print run with your pre-order. As much as we like regular orders, pre-orders are worth even more to Rabbit Room Press because they help us order longer print runs and save significantly per unit.

To pre-order your Wilderking books, click here.

In honor of this new edition of the Wilderking Trilogy, here’s an anecdote in which Jonathan explains where the feechiefolk come from (hint: they come from very close to Warner Robins, Georgia).]

Freebird

Here’s a story I once heard about a colorful character somewhere in the great state of Missouri. It was told to me for the truth. The fellow who told me the story had been a lawyer near Kansas City. He was coming out of the courthouse one bright afternoon, he said, when he saw a family across the way: a four- or five-year-old daughter, a mother, and a father whose hair was styled in a feechie-ish manner—short in the front but cascading in the back down below the scoop of his white tank top. Also, he had a parrot on his shoulder.

The father nudged the little girl and pointed up at the upper floor of the courthouse. “Baby,” he said, “wave hello to Granddaddy.” The little girl waved enthusiastically, and the onlooking lawyer looked up to see a wizened old hand reaching through the bars of the upstairs cell window to wave back. “A touching scene of filial devotion,” I think was how the lawyer described it.

The errand of mercy complete, the little girl looked up at her father and sweetly asked, “Diddy, can you take me to McDonald’s to get some french fries?”

“I sure can, darling,” the father answered. Then he pointed at the parrot on his shoulder. “Just let me swing by and take Freebird home first.”

Before I heard that story, it had never occurred to me to want a parrot. Now I want one just so I can name him Freebird.

Bonus parrot-related anecdote: A friend of mine has a parrot named Mr. Quito. (To my friend’s chagrin, Mr. Quito turned out to be a she-parrot—a fact that came to light when Mr. Quito was several years old.) When my friend moved to a new house, he locked Mr. Quito in the closet below the stairs so that s/he would be out of the movers’ way and wouldn’t be stressed out at the sight of the house being in such disarray (who knew parrots were so particular?). But Mr. Quito was a little stressed out in spite of it all. He spent much of the day repeating, “Let me out of here! Rrrawk! Let me out of here!” It was discomfiting to the movers, who gave each other concerned looks every time they walked past the stairs. Finally, unable to stand the cruelty of it any longer, one of the movers leaned down and called through the keyhole, “It’s all right, Grandma—we’ll be out of here in a little while. I’m sure he’ll let you out then.”

The Sniper

My cousin Jason worked for an heating and air conditioning company when he was in high school. They took care of the huge air conditioning units that sat atop the local mall. The mall had pigeons. Looking up through the skylights, a shopper could see them bobbing and strutting on the roof. They were picturesque, but when they took up residence in the air conditioning units, they played havoc with the interior climate of the mall.

Jason, the youngest (and, presumably, the least skilled) of the company’s employees, was assigned the task of discouraging the pigeons. So one summer morning he carried a BB gun to the mall and climbed through the roof hatch with it.

Jason was popping away on the roof of the mall when a shopper looked up and screamed at the sight of a young man aiming and shooting a gun.

Beautiful Someday

I love that moment in “The Ugly Duckling” when the poor, persecuted duckling, set upon on every side by ducks and hens and cats and henwives, sees a flock of swans:

The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks. They were swans, and uttering a peculiar cry they spread out their magnificent broad wings and flew away from the cold regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy. He circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange that he was quite frightned by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those birds, those beautiful birds.

Was there ever a better depiction of what it’s like to be a child? The duckling, so full of self-doubt, marvels and trembles at the thing he is destined to become. We know what he doesn’t know: he will be that beautiful someday.

Beautiful someday. The duckling’s great revelation is that he is himself a thing of wonder. He admired the swans, but it never occurred to him to aspire to swanhood. When he finally comes face to face with the swans, he assumes that they will kill him for his ugliness. Bowing his neck for the fatal blow, he sees his reflection in the water. And there he sees a swan.

It’s the divine comedy. Our wildest dreams turn out not to be wild enough. Our fondest hopes turn out to be pale beside the truth. And we long and ache for that which turns out to have been true all along.