The drunkest man I ever saw was a mailman. I had gone down to the Echeconnee Creek with my fishing pole and was startled at the sight of him slumped against a bridge piling. There was always trash under the bridge at the Echeconnee—beer cans and fast food wrappers thrown from passing cars, old tires and broken palettes, the remains of campfires. I mistook the mailman at first for a pile of something left on the bank by the latest flood. I might have passed right by him if he hadn’t moaned and raised his head when I was five steps away.
He fixed me with heavy-lidded yellow-brown eyes. Black hair hung in limp, greasy hanks on either side of a face as rutted and hollowed out as a strip mine. He was still in his post office uniform; but it wasn’t the crisp, pressed uniform of an on-duty letter carrier. He had obviously been wearing it for many days. It was dingy and wrinkled and covered in sand. The blue cap with the eagle logo lay cockeyed on the ground beside him. The man was small and wiry. His small uniform hung loose on his frame, as if he had lost weight since it was first issued.
The mailman’s head swayed on unsteady shoulders, and he blinked slowly as he mumbled and slurred something in my direction.
[Editor’s note: Jonathan Rogers not only writes great books, tells humorous anecdotes, and wears bowties and seersucker suits, he also teaches literature at New College Franklin, teaches online writing classes (which you can join here), and now he’s even teaching the entire internet how to improve its writing in his new series of youtube videos. Enjoy!]
Last April I ran the Music City Half-Marathon with my fifteen-year-old son. I ran most of it, anyway. Between Mile Marker 10 and Mile Marker 11 I decided I’d had as much fun as I could stand and sent my son on ahead while I walked a little, trotted a little, walked some more.
I was walking, and not very briskly, near the foot of Capitol Hill when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “You can do this,” said a woman’s voice. “Don’t walk. Run.” I looked to see who my encourager was, but I didn’t recognize her as she passed. I could see that she was a few years older than I. My first thought was, “If this woman can keep running after eleven miles, I can too.” My second thought was, “I’ve got nothing to prove here. She can run if she wants, and good on her. I’m tired of running.” My third thought was, “Wait, is she wearing a beauty pageant sash?”
A white satin sash ran across the woman’s torso from left shoulder to right hip. On it the name “Carolyn Corlew” was emblazoned in royal blue letters. I started running again, not because I had the Eye of the Tiger, or even because I was ashamed that I was being outrun by a woman who clearly had a decade or two on me. No, I ran because if I didn’t catch up with the woman with the sash, I would never know her story.
I recently ran across this little story by Leo Tolstoy, and I thought it might be of some interest to the Rabbit Room.
THE THREE HERMITS
An Old Legend Current in the Volga District
“And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.” — Matt. vi. 7, 8.
A Bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovétsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one. The wind favourable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another. The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.
“Do not let me disturb you, friends,” said the Bishop. “I came to hear what this good man was saying.”
“The fisherman was telling us about the hermits,” replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.
“What hermits?” asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. “Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?”
[Editor’s note: Behold the King of Glory is now available for pre-order in the Rabbit Room store.]
We’re just around the corner from the release of Russ Ramsey’s book, Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In forty short chapters (just right for devotional reading), Russ tells the story of the Gospels. What I have said before about Behold the Lamb I say again about Behold the King:
Russ Ramsey tells a story you’ve heard a hundred times and still haven’t heard enough. With remarkable attention to the facts of the matter, Russ brings to life the story that brings us to life. Here is glory made visible, tangible, audible. Which is to say, here is the Incarnation.
Russ and I recently had a chat about Behold the King, three-legged dogs, and the Millennium Falcon.
On some level, writing is a solitary process. You go into the cave, and you write. But writing doesn’t have to be altogether solitary. Indeed, I don’t think I could go into the cave at all if it weren’t for the life and light going on outside.
I’m reviving my long-moribund blog this year, and one of its central features will be a place where writers can come out of their caves and say to one another, “How’s it going down there?” or “Here’s what’s been working for me,” or “I think I’ve lost my way” or “Let me help you find it.”
The name of this writing community is “Further Up and Further In: A Writers’ Consortium” (thanks, Chris Yokel, for the name). The driving idea behind the consortium is simply to give people an opportunity to state their writerly intentions and to be taken seriously by people who have stated similar intentions. Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and—hopefully—a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article at Jonathan-Rogers.com. That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium.
To learn more about the Further Up and Further In consortium—and to join the group—click here.
It’s release day for Jill Phillips’s new record, Mortar & Stone (available here in the Rabbit Room store). Last week I chatted with Jill via Facebook about her record and other things. Mostly other things. She was just coming in from tutoring a student at her kids’ school, which draws students from very expensive neighborhoods, from housing projects, and from every sort of neighborhood in between. That was where our conversation started.
Your kids’ school is pretty interesting—this meeting point between families of privilege and families who don’t enjoy nearly the same advantages.
I agree. I want my kids to go to a school where people don’t have all the privileges they have. I want them to know that in all the important ways, those other kids aren’t that different. I think the things they see there hopefully build character and compassion. We talk about their school and friends in the context of the gospel all the time. I want them to see Jesus there and in their classmates. The thing that makes people the most anxious about sending their children there is really its greatest gift.
I think that has some relevance to the music you and Andy [Gullahorn] have been making—and the life y’all have been living—for a long time. So many of the songs on Mortar & Stone are about the blessings that come out of things you didn’t want at all.
That’s really interesting. I do think that’s true. I don’t think we can avoid pain. Our kids can’t avoid pain growing up. I can’t avoid pain in my daily life. Part of maturity is knowing who to turn to when hard things happen- who is Lord of it. I want to sing about all of those things.
Every grownup in the world will tell you that the things that made them a better person are the hard things, and yet most of us don’t want hard things for our kids. As much as I know I need Jesus, I don’t want my kids to have to need Jesus
I know, it’s so true. Even as I write that and know I believe it I fight it every day. I don’t want them to suffer, I don’t want to suffer.
Kids are the final frontier when it comes to the gospel.
One night a few months ago, Stephen Trafton performed his one-man show, Encountering Colossians, in Nashville. As a bonus, he sang “The Impossible Dream” from the musical The Man from La Mancha. Stephen’s song and his remarks about Don Quixote sent me back to one of my favorite books of all time. This post first appeared on Justin Taylor’s blog on The Gospel Coalition.
It’s hard to know how to take Don Quixote. He is as thoroughgoing a fool as any figure in all of Western literature. Addled by many years’ obsessive reading of old stories of knight-errantry, Quixote is unfit for life in the (early) modern world where he finds himself. His foolishness is not entirely harmless, either. When he sallies forth with his sidekick Sancho Panza to enact his chivalric fantasies, they leave behind them a trail of property damage, bodily harm, and high dudgeon. At one point, Quixote frees a chain gang from their captors, releasing hardened criminals into the Spanish countryside to commit who knows what depredations. Cervantes makes it clear that his hero is a menace to civil order, however good his intentions.
Yet for all that, we cannot help but love Don Quixote. He is a man of vision; rather than getting comfortable with the world around him, he forever strives for another, better world. Where other people see squalor and ugliness, he sees dignity and beauty and hope.
Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.
That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.
[Editor’s Note: This Sunday, August 3, is the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death. This memorial is adapted from Jonathan’s biography of O’Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, which is available in the Rabbit Room store.]
Fifty summers ago, Flannery O’Connor was thirty-nine years old. She had battled lupus for most of her adult life, managing the disease with massive doses of corticosteroids, which themselves had serious side effects. As she wrote to a friend, “So far as I can tell, the medicine and the disease run neck & neck to kill you.” In the spring of 1954, a major surgery reactivated O’Connor’s dormant lupus; the tell-tale “lupus rash” broke through the protective steroid barrier, signaling that the disease was back in earnest. O’Connor spent a month in Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital–from May 21 to June 20.
A prodigious letter-writer, O’Connor kept up her correspondence from her hospital bed. Through her many hospital stays, she almost always kept up her letter-writing. But she tended to put off fiction-writing until she could get back to her typewriter. The fact that she wrote much of “Parker’s Back” in Piedmont Hospital, in longhand, suggests a sense of urgency that was unusual for this most deliberate writer. O’Connor seemed to understand that there was something different about this hospital stay, about this recurrence of a disease that had come and gone but had been mostly manageable to that point. The letters she wrote that month didn’t have the same cheery tone that she usually assumed in her hospital letters. “I don’t know if I’m making progress or if there’s any to be made,” she wrote her friend Maryat Lee. “Let’s hope they are learning something anyhow.”
“Ball,” he said, and he gestured to the heavens. I looked where my little boy was pointing and saw a full moon hanging high in the winter sky.
“That’s right, you brilliant boy,” I said. “It is a ball. The moon is a great big ball.”
He didn’t know more than four or five words at the time: Mama. Daddy. Ball. Dog. Plane. What a remarkable thing—to have words only for one’s favorite things in the world.
“The moon is a ball,” I told my boy, “and so is the earth we’re standing on. This whole world is one big ball set spinning in the universe.”
He smiled at me. It was not a smile of comprehension, but of contentment. To me it seemed to say, “Of course this whole world is a ball! And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a great ball where dogs trot and planes soar overhead and my mama loves me and my daddy holds me in the cold night and tells me what I suspected all along: that the moon is a ball, and the world is too.”
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.
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.
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!”
[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:
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”
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