There is a moment in Chapter 4 of The Bark of the Bog Owl that makes me cringe a little bit. Aidan and Dobro have gotten mixed up with a panther, which “bared its fangs and wailed a deep rumbling moan that became a piercing scream.” It’s not a bad description, but it’s not what I wrote. The panther wasn’t supposed to wail. Panthers waul. It’s the perfect verb for what panthers do. But a well-meaning editor at B&H publishing group changed waul to wail (just as my computer’s auto-correct did just now), and I didn’t notice until after the book was published. So since 2004 that poor panther has been going against his own nature, wailing instead of wauling for nine years.
I have good news for the panther. The rights to the Wilderking Trilogy recently reverted to me after a period in which the books were effectively (though not technically) out of print. The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking are coming back with a new publisher: Rabbit Room Press. And I have been able to fix some of the little things that have been bothering me about the published versions. The new and improved Kindle versions of the three books are already available, in fact. And in the Rabbit Room edition the panther wauls (though–spoiler alert–he still doesn’t survive Chapter 4).
I am thankful for B&H’s support of the Wilderking in years past; I long ago recovered from the shock of having a B&H salesman suggest that I make Dobro Turtlebane a girl (girls read far more than boys, he reasoned, and they needed a character to relate to). Still, bringing Aidan and Dobro and them to the Rabbit Room Press feels like a kind of homecoming. And Pete Peterson has never once suggested that Dobro should be a girl.
For an unspecified (but limited) time, the Kindle version of The Bark of the Bog Owl is only 99 cents. If you aren’t familiar with the Wilderking Trilogy, this is an easy way to introduce yourself. If you want to pick up The Secret of the Swamp King and The Way of the Wilderking while you’re at it, that will be all right too.
The plan is to have paperback versions of all three books by the end of the summer; we’ll soon be back in touch with ways you can help make that happen. Meanwhile, if you’re a Kindle reader, you might check out the e-books. Here are those links again:
George Jones died today. When he was a young man, famous for his hard lifestyle of drink and drugs and for outbursts of anger, nobody would have expected him ever to be an old man. But his fourth wife Nancy, with whom he just celebrated his thirtieth wedding anniversary, helped him settle into a more sustainable life and live to the respectable age of 81.
Most of us are able to keep our failures more or less private. We make mistakes, but the selves we present to the world are our better selves. Things didn’t work out that way for George Jones. Any pleasure he took from the adulation of his many fans was surely tempered by the fact that those fans also knew of his personal failings. Everybody knew the story of the time he piloted a riding lawnmower to the liquor store because his wife had taken away his car keys [ed. that liquor store is one block from the Rabbit Room office, by the way]. They knew about the trashed motel rooms, the fistfights, the holes he shot in the floor of his tour bus. An anecdote is just a sad story told for laughs; George Jones was the subject of more than his share of anecdotes.
I have written elsewhere about the practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities. Two nicknames stuck with George Jones for most of his life: No Show and Possum—No Show for the many tour dates he missed when he was too drunk to play, and Possum for the close-set eyes and sloping nose that gave him a look reminiscent of North America’s only marsupial. I have often wondered what it would be like to be universally acknowledged as one of the greatest country music vocalists of all time (Waylon Jennings once said, “If we could all sound the way we wanted, we would all sound like George Jones”) and yet still be known as “No Show” or “Possum”–drunk or ugly.
On April Fools’ Day my grandmother and her sisters packed their lunch pails like any other school day. Their mother walked them to the dirt road and kissed them goodbye, but instead of turning left to walk toward school, the girls turned right toward the train tracks. They walked up the tracks a piece until they got to a little marshy pond, a favorite spot of theirs. They lay beside the pond in their school dresses and watched the clouds drift by and giggled at the thought of their classmates sitting at their desks that bright spring morning. They pulled out their lunches and ate them. It was only nine in the morning, but they felt like eating, and it was April Fools’ Day, and who was going to stop them?
They caught some bugs and picked some wildflowers and got mud on their dresses, and then decided to catch the last half of the school day. So they walked back down the train tracks and up the dirt road toward the school. When they passed the house, their mother waved at them from the porch.
When they got to school the teacher said, “Where have you girls been?”
“At the marshy pond,” they said, “beside the railroad tracks.”
“And why were you at the marshy pond?” the teacher asked.
“It’s April Fools’ Day.”
The teacher made the girls stay in from recess for a couple of weeks–a punishment they willingly accepted. From what I understand, this happened more than once. Apparently it was sort of a Dowdy family tradition, to act the fool on April Fools’ Day, and to receive the punishment for that foolishness without complaint or rancor.
I love that picture of my great-grandmother waving to the little truants as they pass back by. Having given them room to try out a little harmless foolishness, she waves them on toward its logical outcome, not intervening on either end, but rather letting her daughters experience the truth that wisdom and foolishness are a matter of choice, and that choices have consequences.
“Well I thanks you for your birthday message,” Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend in 1960. “I am thirty-five years old and still have all my teeth.” If she were still alive, today would be her 88th birthday. It’s hard to say whether she would still have all her teeth.
In celebration of Flannery O’Connor’s birthday, I want to tell the story of one of the most remarkable episodes in her remarkable life. In 1958, O’Connor had been suffering from lupus for eight years and was unable to walk without a cane thanks to decalcification in a hip bone (the result, most likely, of the corticosteroids used to combat her disease rather than the disease itself). Her older cousin and benefactor, Katie Semmes, got it in her head that what Flannery needed was a trip to Lourdes, France. Lourdes was the place where a nineteenth-century peasant girl reportedly saw eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The water from the grotto at Lourdes reportedly had healing properties; from the mid-nineteenth century to today, the sick and lame and other pilgrims have come by the millions to visit the chapel built on the site, and to drink and bathe in the waters. It was Cousin Katie’s notion to get Flannery to the waters there and pray for a miraculous healing.
Patrick lived at the end of the world. A Roman citizen, he was born and raised in Britain, the northern- and westernmost extremity of a Roman empire that extended (overextended, as it turned out) south to Africa and east to the Tigris and Euphrates.
I often run across people who are convinced that our culture is running hard toward rack and total ruin, but any sense of cultural doom that keeps you up at night is nothing to what a Roman Briton of Patrick’s era must have felt. The exact date of Patrick’s birth is unknown, but he was probably born within a decade of 410 AD, the year the Vandals sacked Rome. That same year the Emperor Honorius sent a letter to the cities of Britain putting them on notice that they were officially on their own; they could expect no more help from Rome. The letter was only a formality. The Roman army had withdrawn from Britain three years earlier; the Roman Britons were keenly aware of the fact that they were on their own.
Patrick’s real name—his Roman name—was Patricius, as in patrician, noble-born. A scion of a wealthy family, he grew up in a Roman villa, surrounded by British barbarians (the island was never very Romanized), who were themselves surrounded by Irish barbarians, Scottish barbarians, and Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on the continent. At the beginning of the fifth century, these barbarian tribes saw significant Roman wealth in Britain and no Roman army to protect it. You can probably guess what happened next.
If you were to look at my Neftlix queue, you would probably think, “Wow! That dude must really like documentaries and foreign-language films.” If, on the other hand, you were to look at the history of what I actually watch on Netflix, you would more likely think, “Wow! That dude must really like Nacho Libre and The A-Team.”
It’s easy to be high-minded when I’m planning out what movies I’m going to watch someday. It costs me nothing—not even five seconds of my time—to add The Bicycle Thief to the queue. But when I actually sit down to watch a movie—when we’re actually talking about 89 minutes of my life…let’s just say that in the several years that The Bicycle Thief has languished in my queue unwatched, I have watched Raising Arizona several times, even though Raising Arizona has never been in my queue.
This phenomenon is not, of course, limited to the Netflix queue, nor is it limited to me. Jill Phillips recently tweetered, “When I am at Whole Foods I only want to eat salads. And then I leave and then I don’t.” Exactly.
To my knowledge, this phenomenon doesn’t have a name. But it ought to. So I present the question to you, the readership of the Rabbit Room. What are we to call the principle by which Jill Phillips likes salad as long as she doesn’t actually have to eat it, and I like foreign-language movies as long as I don’t actually have to watch them?
Offer your suggestions in the comment section below. If you contribute the best name for the above-described phenomenon, you will win a signed* photograph of Russ Ramsey with very big hair.
*I can’t guarantee that the photograph will actually be signed by Russ Ramsey; but if he won’t sign it, I’m sure somebody will.
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”
I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”
I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.
For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.
“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.
So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.
[Editor's note: This post is adapted from Jonathan Rogers's portion of the Hutchmoot 2012 session entitled "The Gospel Uses of Comedy."]
I love a good tragedy. Hamlet and Oedipus and Medea and Dr. Faustus and Macbeth have plenty to tell us about the human condition. But I don’t think they show us any more than Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp—loose of limb and baggy of trouser, continually embarrassed, forever getting in over his head, getting out again, escaping ruin not by wit or social influence or main strength, but by happy accident—by a kind of grace.
Two years ago Andrew Peterson posted an essay here on the Rabbit Room in which he describes the experience of reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling.
I sat on the front porch at the Warren on a rainy day, read the last sentence, turned my head so my children wouldn’t see my face, and wept. I asked God, aloud, “Why must it be so? Why must it be so?” Why must the bright wonder and innocence of youth be shot and killed? Why must the little boy in me pass into the night, gone like a ghost? Why must I spend the second half of my life grieving that boy’s departure from the world, always seeking him, always wishing for a world untainted?
The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club continues this week with “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
The central action of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is a battle of wits between Mr. Shiftlet and Lucynell Crater–Shiftlet angling to get the old woman’s car, the old woman manipulating Shiftlet to marry her daughter. It is tempting to call their mental chess match, with its measures and countermeasures, a duel of competing world views. Mr. Shiftlet presents himself as a philosopher, constantly steering the conversation toward life’s imponderables. The old woman is a pragmatist, earth-bound and world-weary, the kind of person whom you can’t put anything past.
But even if these two characters compete with one another, I’m not sure their world views do. Both Mr. Shiftlet’s philosophizing and Lucynell Crater’s no-nonsense materialism are both ways of avoiding any claims that God might have on their lives. Mr. Shiftlet’s restlessness is not that of a man in search of truth, but the restlessness of a man running from truth. His favorite topic, the theme of his song, is unknowability.