Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sehnsucht

Posted by David

I recently came across the curious word, Sehnsucht, while reading an article by C.S. Lewis. It forced me to look it up. It’s German and doesn’t seem to have an adequate translation in English. It’s the sort of word that’s difficult explain in any language. The closest word I know to it is nostalgia.

Wikipedia states, “Sehnsucht is a German word that literally means ‘longing’ or in a wider sense a kind of ‘intensely missing’.” I get the feeling that this word may refer to a peculiar, fleeting mood that overcomes me every now and again.

My wife was looking at a Lopi knitting book a few years back and I noticed a photograph of a house along the sea in Iceland. For a few moments I was overwhelmed with the feeling. It is like deep nostalgia, but because I’ve never been to Iceland, it’s a nostalgia for something I’ve never known. I get the same feeling for the ‘North’ country, whatever that means. High latitude skies, cold winds across the bracken might trigger the feeling in me. I also get this feeling from simpler things, especially good children’s literature. Try the original Winnie-the-Pooh Series, especially the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner.

I also get the feeling when think about The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. After reading those books in rapid succession, I went through a mild depression when I realized I had left the place for good, the series of books were over and I couldn’t go back. Today, I still long for the Shire in my life. But it can’t be. I know that. There is a purpose of Sehnsucht and its purpose is to point us in the direction of life. We are not supposed to go back or retreat into or relive or even seek out to restore the Sehnsucht in our lives. I expect that one day I will awaken into it. I will learn that it was God calling all along. If I understand correctly, this is how C.S. Lewis understood it, too.

Just a couple of days ago I had another experience with Sehnsucht in the early morning hours. I had one of what I call my ‘Nostalgia Dreams’. It’s always the same. I’m in a beautiful dream, usually of childhood. Then I slowly recognize in the midst of the dream that it’s only a dream. Then it hits me. An intense wave of sadness, akin to depression, sweeps over my body. The feeling is so strong that I’m shocked into consciousness. At first, I can still feel the deep longing and sadness. Within about a minute or so, it is mostly faded. But the feeling never really ever fades completely. My entire being lives partially in Sehnsucht. Today, I know it’s God calling me home.

It makes me wonder if Jesus lived his life on earth with this feeling. As Emanuel, ‘God with us’, how greatly he must have longed to return to his Father.

The light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-colored cliffs led up in front of them like a giant’s staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty…

Then Aslan turned to them and said: “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

The Last Battle, The Cronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

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Art Versus Science – and Bread

Posted by Mike

I’ve never quite clearly gotten the distinction that is often suggested when a reference is made to a skill being more art rather than science. I think I get the general idea: that science relates to a procedure that has been developed through rigorous experimentation and that once obtained has been clearly described and passed on as a well-defined set of steps; whereas when art is predominant the talent lies in the ability of the individual practitioner and either cannot be taught and passed on to others or can only be replicated in a sketchy manner, which would be lacking the subtleties and finesse of the master practitioner.  Does that fit with the way you see it?

Certainly a great deal of skill is dependent upon natural proclivities, learning, experience, and repetition or practice. When I drive to work daily I sometimes marvel at the ability of hundreds of people within my field of vision, driving like me, and who are able to navigate adequately to keep from ramming their cars into others and causing a giant mess. NY 300 in Town of Newburgh, NY.jpgDriving is clearly a skill that requires a lot of practice to perform well, but something that most anyone can do reasonably adequately without getting into trouble. I guess here we’re talking about a normative skill, something that doesn’t require the exactitude of science, but that also doesn’t demand the unique expressiveness of art.

Maybe that’s it – that art relates to the personal expression of an individual, reflecting his or her inner life and feelings as applied to a medium of expression within the context of the subject chosen by the artist.  There’s a distinction too that is easier to grasp, between art and craft, although it may be that there is considerable fuzziness and overlap between the two. The essential aspect of art is that it is the personal expression of the artist, reflecting his or her inner life – with such expression perceived by the viewer/perceiver of the art as beautiful. You can have art that reflects terribly gruesome aspects of life (e.g., The Scream by Edvard Munch), but beautiful in this instance doesn’t refer to ideal attractiveness, but to “what stirs a heightened response of the senses and of the mind on its highest level” [ American Heritage Dictionary].

Craft and craftspersons have tended never to receive enough credit for their work. The essential aspect of craft is that what is produced is functional and that it is produced by hand, as opposed to mass produced. If the craftsperson is himself/herself the designer and if the design is individualized and unique in some way and reflects beauty in the eye of the beholder, it seems to me that we can call the product art. If the product is mass produced, we don’t have craft production, but may very likely have art in the design. And let us not neglect to say that the ability to provide multiple copies of great art enables it to be shared by many who would otherwise not be so graced. A purist might say that a copy never possesses that certain “je ne sais quoi” of the artist.

Would you say that the Doric columns and the friezes on the Parthenon were carved by craftsmen or artists? Obviously the columns required one kind of skill and the friezes required another.Partenon04.JPG Also, we know that there were people we would now call architects or engineers that designed the structure, and clearly the friezes were designed by artists, though no one would deny that art was involved in the overall design of the structure. Were the craftsmen who carved the friezes artists in their own right? Obviously we don’t know; but we can conclude that the people who did the stonework were all highly skilled, working from detailed designs, and likely not able to individualize their products using their own imagination or creativity, as was seen in some of the religious sculpture adorning cathedrals in the middle ages.

I’ve been cooking bread for four or five years now. Bread making is generally not thought of as an art or a craft, but I’ve been rethinking the issue after reading The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz [1993, Ten Speed Press]. Mama Mia! There’s more to bread making than I would have thought possible! It’s clearly a craft with artistic aspects, and to do it well requires great skill. I became intimidated on the first page, and must confess that I remain, after working at bread making desultorily for several years, a rank beginner. That’s part of the problem, of course – I mean the desultoriness. I think I’m beginning to see (and I’m not learning this just from bread making) that to really become good at anything, what is required most of all is practice, practice, practice – so much so that at some point, one begins to function on automatic. What that means is that the neurological and muscular responses are so well learned that they are managed at a subconscious level. I suspect that though we are unaware of it, virtually all of our well learned activities are controlled and directed at a subconscious level. Our awareness is literally the very tip of the iceberg of mental processing.

The term culinary arts does seem appropriate. Working with and preparing food is a craft, because its products are functional. It’s an art because good food preparation requires personal expression, and though it can be taught, there remains a degree of “je ne sais quoi,” that certain something that comes from the soul of the practitioner.

Okay, I have to admit it: My bread never rises like my daughter-in-law’s does. Could it be that it’s her “je ne sais quoi”?


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A Colloquy of Saps

Guest Post by Alan Gibson

Social heresy: stop being so cloyingly, insufferably polite

There are variations, but typically it goes like this:

“How’re you?”

“Fine. How’re you?”

“Fine thanks. Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you.”

What’s the point of all that? Cordiality? I never feel buoyed by one of those exchanges; I feel diminished. For all the “how are you’s” nobody finds out how the other is.

And that’s too bad because it’s a splendid query—how, at essence, are you? But the question presumes a certain intimacy and investment of time. Ideally, the parties would be lounging with drinks, watching water or a sunset.

A friend explained to me that the casual ‘how are you’ is genuine in that the asker wants to be reassured that the other is ‘all right.’ Which to me compounds the disingenuity since no one is ever all right this side of a lobotomy.

“You’ve go a bad attitude,” my friend remarked. “There’s nothing wrong with being polite.”

There is, however, something wrong with emptiness, with essence being trivialized, with substitute yammer for authentic openness of spirit. It would be a fine thing if more of us told one another how we are. But you can’t fake the discourse, or short-cut your way to that kind of understanding.

Previously published in the Picken’s Progress

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Hurricane Hill at Night

Posted by David

For me, Helfa didn’t cross my mind, not once. Our trip up Hurricane Hill at night was a movement into the Sublime. I wanted my dad to go there with me. I have been there, at night in the wilderness, so many times before. I wanted him to experience it with me.

Walking at night in the wilderness at night has been an important part of my life for many years now, at least as long as I’ve been an adult away from my parents. It makes no difference whether the moon is full or new, if there are at least a few stars visible in the universe above, the experience is the same. I walk out into the vastness of God’s creation and feel as if the universe and I are of the same ilk.

I can touch the moon. I can touch a star. I can reach out and touch the hazy blur of Andromeda. The light in my eye from these distant places is just that: in my eye. Their light is in me. I am a part of them and they are a part of me. In the sublime, I find that the speed of light is irrelevant. Time and space is irrelevant. The stellar bodies, their space, and me are of one body: God’s creation with Christ as our head, as Teilhard de Chardin would remind us.

On that special night, when my dad entered the sublime with me, the stage was set with a grand sunset. The fiery ball had sunk beneath the edge of the earth minutes before we arrived at the trailhead. In its wake a sea of crimson and orange faded upward into the earth’s blue shadow. The light-sharpened and serrated western mountainous horizon provided a pure Gestalt form for my time-boundless psyche to explore. The brilliant light in the sky above and solid-opaque Olympic Mountain below tunneled into my subconscious sparking memories unresolvable, memories that are more akin to the dream of an infant. Those are feeling-stories spoken in color and form, without words, without names, and without knowledge, but full of wisdom. They are the stories worth telling. I wish I could tell them with words or more plausibly with music. They shatter my worldly reality. They are the words of God himself. Jesus tells these stories. Jesus is this story. I am only an infant yet a brother in the Sublime.

The horizon of which I consumed followed us all the way to the top of Hurricane Hill, waning as the stars and quarter moon waxed.  At the top we could see long horizontal lenses and tails of Zephyr cirrus clouds over a small corner of the Pacific. The curve of the earth was detectable, maybe only through logic. I tried to take some photos for my dad. There is no justice in those picts.

I write this now and hesitate to describe what was on the other side of Hurricane Hill. I hesitate to mention the lights twinkling in the cityscapes below. I hesitate to cast your eyes northward upon the array of lights spreading in a linear scatter plot, mapping out the landforms and massive waterways from Port Angeles to Victoria and onward over the San Juans to the metropolis of Vancover, British Columbia. I hesitate because I don’t want to look back into the choppy sea of humanity, but to look forward to the peace and sublimity of the Kingdom of God.

But I cast your mind’s eye on those lights in the cities, towns and houses, because those lights represent the sublime too. Just look beyond the facades, push aside the pride and prejudice, throw off the rose-colored glasses, clean up the self-pity, rip off the dead skin and look. There it is. See. See all the stars. Focus in on one, on yours. It really is.  You’re right. It’s not all that much different than Alpha Centuri nor our sun for that matter. But your star is very special. Keep it uncovered and you’ll see where it takes you. It’s the most important thing God ever gave you. For it is you. No you don’t! Don’t you dare hide it under that bushel.

This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine…Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

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Helfa Reigns

Posted by Mike
Helfa, a Rhode Island Red hen

Helfa, a Rhode Island Red hen

She’s brown, round and plump, but clearly the “alpha” party in the group.  She had flown the coop one time too many that day. If some chickens insist on being free range, Helfa was one of them. I wasn’t aware that free range chickens actually stick around the home turf, but learned that from Helfa. Generally she would range the yard up to the street or even crop a few bites from the neighbor’s grass, but she never went far.

In exasperation David tried several techniques using additional chicken wire in likely escape  hatches and he clipped her wings so close that she now had little penguin wings. Before that, when we shooed her in from atop the stone wall behind the pen, she was able to slow her landings a little, but now coming down she looked like a 747 with twenty foot wings.  It was always a hard landing.

Along toward evening David reminded me that this was the day, after dinner, that he and I were to drive up toward Hurricane Ridge. He wanted us to be successful in climbing the “Switchback” to the ridge beneath Mt. Angeles. Two years ago I had given up on this hike – apparently with only a couple of turns to go. I think he believed that if I made it to the top this time, it might have some kind of salubrious effect on the aging process – in me. At his suggestion I was immediately guarded. “You know, I’ve been thinking that it’s just too much for me. Let’s just stay down here tonight.” Down here was Port Angeles, Washington, at around 500 feet in elevation. Up there was near the top of Hurricane Ridge, at about 5,000 feet.

David doesn’t take “No” for an answer. “Dad, if that’s too much for you, we can climb to the top of Hurricane Hill. It’s not nearly as steep. It’ll be wonderful.” Sometimes it’s difficult if not impossible to disappoint such enthusiasm. Besides, he needed to get away for a few hours, from both a crying baby and from Helfa.

By the time supper ended Helfa, the other hens, and the maybe rooster were safely ensconced in their coop, secure from the claws of local raccoons and other predators, and David and I were ascending the road to Hurricane Ridge. The ridge tops out at about 5,200 feet, not far from the tree line in the Olympics. It actually is a ridge. The road rides along the very top for a mile, then dips down and rises again ending at a parking lot where the trail to Hurricane Hill begins. I had hiked the first quarter mile several years ago. It’s flat with little rise. The only problem is that there are places not more than five or six feet from the path where the drop-off is — shall we say — only a few thousand feet or so.

When we arrived at the trail it was already dusk. It was a relatively clear evening and the sunset to the west over the northern edge of the Olympic range was spectacular.238 - Copy It was the autumnal equinox and fortunately at that time of the year (actually probably most of the year) at that latitude twilights and sunsets last a long time. I had hoped that we would turn around at the end of the flat trail – about a quarter of a mile – but no, we were going “to the top” of Hurricane Hill. “It’s not very far, just a few switchbacks. Nothing like the steepness or distance on the ‘Switchback’,” said David, providing the reassurance that would prevent me from refusing to budge at the end of the first quarter mile.

We trudged onward – and by now steeply upward. At six-two David was ambling. Being shorter and a  flatlander I was taking what seemed comparative baby steps, grinding away at the gravel, pacing my breathing and steps so I didn’t start puffing – and beginning to think that I’d show this whippersnapper Western guy, my son,  that despite all I had what it takes.  I want to say here and now for posterity that I only asked, very calmly, “How much further is the top?” twice. If you hear anything else regarding that issue you can disregard it immediately as disinformation. We continued to trudge onward and upward. The light and sunset were really fading now. The valley to our west was pitch-black. Fortunately there was slightly more than a quarter moon in the western sky that would be good for another four or five hours and it provided just enough light to see the path. The trail switched back and forth. It steepened. I asked if that clump of trees above us was the top – where we were headed. “No, we’re not going  there.” No! We were going further up!

Finally, the path narrowed, became indistinct and strewn with much larger boulders and we arrived at the top of Hurricane Hill. By now it was almost completely dark. But we were indeed on the top of a peak, with a commanding view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From our perch at 5,757 feet, we could see beneath us to the right all of the lights of the city of Port Angeles.121 Across the Strait were the lights of Victoria, B.C., and it seemed like we could see beyond the western edge of Vancouver Island to Barkley Sound and the islands beyond as well as half of Vancouver Island, though I know that couldn’t be possible (it’s 300 miles long!). It was striking that to the north of us there was visible the lights of at least several hundred thousand people. To the west and south of us there were no lights. The vast wilderness of the Olympic Mountains was essentially uninhabited for 30 miles to the west and at least 50 miles to the south.

The time exposures David took really don’t do the scene justice. The ghost in one of the pictures is me! 123The trail up had been 1.8 miles and I had stuck with it.  The result was rewarding. The next best thing would be to do it again, next time during daylight, when you really would feel like you are on the top of the world.

I’d like to say coming down was easy. And I guess it was. I had prepared for emergencies by secreting a very small flashlight – like someone might carry on a key chain. David was ambling back down the path seemingly with the night vision of a cat. I never let on, but I was unable to see anything but his vague shadow ahead of me, at times fading out completely in the shadows only to reappear later in a minimal shaft of moonlight. Later I said that I only used the flashlight briefly three times coming down and intend to stick to that story regardless of any other opinion. We arrived back at the car after hiking about three and a half miles in two hours, with the flatlander none the worse for wear. Driving back down to Port Angeles I heard tales of mountain lions and other animals bounding across the road on previous late night forays, but alas the only thing that crossed the path of the rented Ford Focus was shadows.

The next day Helfa was at it again. David was constructing yet another Maginot Line. That one too was not effective. This all occurred only a week ago, so I don’t have current information regarding Helfa, but it might not be a pretty picture!

[see map at http://www.nps.gov/PWR/customcf/apps/maps/showmap.cfm?alphacode=olym&parkname=Olympic%20National%20Park Enlarge the section of map south of Port Angeles. You will see the road to Hurricane Ridge and the trail to Hurricane Hill to the northwest of the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.]

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High Moon

Posted by David

I just walked outside and looked up at the Harvest Moon. It’s a dry, clear night here in Western Washington. The moon is brightening the fresh snow on the northern peaks of the Olympic Range. Jupiter shines bright accenting the pseudo-day of the high moon.  Later tonight the moon will be replaced by Venus only to be trumped by the dazzling light of the morning sun which will outshine all our other heavenly lights by many orders of magnitude.

Everything turns, cyclically. Everything in the natural order, that is. And rest assured there is a supernatural order also. We aren’t bound to life in an infinite waveform. We haven’t be given such as nihilistic fate. The natural order rests nested within and among the supernatural order, maybe like electromagnetic waveform. No, possibly like the way an electromagnetic wave is nested within and among the particle. No not like that either, only like God is to his creation.

I read an interesting comment today on an economic blog about our current state of affairs. I can’t say that I agree with him entirely. I think he’s a bit too stuck in his cyclic metaphors. The natural and human world isn’t as rigid as he thinks, but his writing made me think. Plus, I like when people think metaphorically. It can allow us to find nuggets of truth.

In his comment, Michael Clark thinks we entered a long 18 year cycle in 2001. Strauss and Howe who wrote The Fourth Turning might agree. Both seem to believe that civilization cycles throughout time. And in this cyclical nature, a population’s general mood shifts from foreboding to resting and back. This mood shift affects our culture, economics, etc. I buy this argument and also believe that a general mood shift has occurred in our culture in recent years. However, I don’t believe life to be so deterministic. Although there maybe cycles in nature, there is also the overarching foundation to life which drive the materialistic world: the supernatural order.

I use the term supernatural, not to scare you off (I’m not talking about the Ghost Busters sort of supernatural), but describe an order that goes beyond the rigid simplicity of wave patterns and orthodox determinism. The supernatural is the realm of faith.

We could look at it this way: (1) The order of the natural world is like science, one closely akin to reason and logic where a clear and precise order is based on cyclical causality (if that makes any sense). And (2) the supernatural world is simply the order of faith and love. I just had to add the love part, because faith without love is just robotics and then we’re back to determinism.

Yes, most definitely, everything in nature cycles, like Clark, Strauss and Howe describe, but all of those cycles rest on the particle of faith. Because of this, we can’t say outcomes and prognostications are as simple as these bright men have laid out. We can say that there is an order that comes and goes in waves, yet that order can come to an end. Waveforms have ends and beginnings.  There are freeze-frame terminations. There are also new beginnings which is a very refreshing thought, which is the theology of grace.

What’s going to happen 18 years from 2001? I don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I suppose I expect the moon to set in a few hours. I expect the earth will continue to turn. Thankfully, I also expect that God’s love and grace will be freshly supplied again tomorrow.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

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