This month, I’ve been learning to play and sing the the song The Wild Geese, as performed by Jim Malcolm in this recording:

Most of the challenge has been in getting a good sound on the harmonica while it’s strapped to my face with a rack. That requires all the brain power so the guitar part needs to be utterly automatic.

Anyway, I really love this song. It was written by the poet Violet Jabob in 1915 and turned into a song by folk singer Jim Reid sometime in 60s or 80s. The lyrics is posted below. The song is in Scots English, which is about 70% English, but with just enough oddly-pronounced loan words to make it kind of hard to understand.

“Oh tell me fit was on yer road, ye roarin Norland wind?
As ye come blawin frae the land that’s never frae ma mind.
Ma feet they traivel England but I’m deein for the North.”
“Ma man, I saw the siller tides rin up the Firth o Forth.”

“Aye wind, I ken them weel eneuch an fine they fa and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creepin mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, fit saw ye on the way?”
“Ma man, I rocked the rovin gulls that sail abin the Tay.”

“Bit saw ye naethin leein wind afore ye come tae Fife?
For there’s muckle lyin ‘yont the Tay that’s mair tae me nor life.”
“Ma man, I swept the Angus braes that ye hivna trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgie a hameless loon that canna see for tears.”

“And far abin the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o beatin wings wi their heids toward the sea,
And aye their cryin voices trailed ahint them on the air.”
“Oh wind, hae mercy, haud your wheesht for I daurna listen mair.”

The Anglicized version is a bit easier to understand:

“Oh tell me what was on your road, you roaring Norland wind?
As you come blowing from the land that’s never from my mind.
My feet they travel England but I’m dying for the North.”
“My man, I saw the silver tides run up the Firth o Forth.”

“Oh wind, I ken them well enough and fine they fall and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creeping mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, what saw ye on the way?”
“My man, I rocked the roving gulls that sail above the Tay.”

“But saw ye nothing, lying wind, before ye came to Fife?
For there’s much lying beyond the Tay that’s more to me than life.”
“My man, I swept the Angus braes that you havn’t trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgive a homeless lad that cannot see for tears.”

“And far above the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A long, long skein of beating wings with their heads toward the sea,
And aye their crying voices trailed behind them on the air.”
“Oh wind, have mercy, hold your tongue for I dare not listen more.”

The song is about a Scottish man living in England who is longing for his homeland. Nearly every other line mentions specific places in Scotland. Alas, I’ve never been to any of these places named, nor even traveled to the UK. I have zero personal or emotional connection to anything literally mentioned in the song. I also don’t miss and yet the song is in fact very emotional for me. It’s easy, by analogy, to use the speaker’s loneliness and longing as a stand-in for your own. I don’t long for my homeland (The Pacific Northwest), because I’m still here, but I do long for my REAL home.

Just last night I read in Dante’s Purgatorio (canto 28), the lady explaining how the longing for another place spoken of by poets is often a sort of genetic memory of our time in Eden:

Those who in ancient times have feigned in song
The Age of Gold and its felicity,
Dreamed of this place perhaps upon Parnassus.
Here was the human race in innocence;
Here evermore was Spring, and every fruit;
This is the nectar of which each one speaks.

Incidentally, as I going for a walk around the edge of town a few nights ago, the sound of real wild geese cut through my noise-cancelling headphones and made me stop in the dark and listen to an unseen flock of them by the creek. I recorded this with my phone, and though nothing is visible the flowing water and the honks are rather enchanting!

 

The first book I ever picked out and bought on my own was Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest. I was hitting yardsales on a Saturday morning with my mom. I think I must have been about eight years old. It’s still one of the only books I own on local history. I don’t even remember reading it, but it had the coolest map ever on the inside cover! (click to zoom in)

 

African Religion and Philosophy, John Mbiti
Tales of the Kingdom, David and Karen Maines (read aloud to the kids, 3rd time)
The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten
With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen
Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy (partial)
On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, Albert Schweitzer
After You Believe, N.T. Wright (partial)
The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown (read aloud to the kids, mostly)
Dune, Frank Herbert
The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, by Rowan Williams
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Rene Girard (2nd time)
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
Waiting for God, Simone Weil
Advent, Flemming Rutledge (partial)

I read fewer books this year, and in particular read fewer aloud to the kids due to some logistic problems that have yet to be sufficiently solved. I have also broken away from the practice of fervently finishing every book I start. Some didn’t even make this list.

The following are some excerpts from Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” that I found particularly interesting.

The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much of the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone. Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interst is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason to an almost equal degree.

If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of and hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer.

So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.

With all the hyper-focus on utility, ROI, and job-skill training that has taken place in in the West in recent decades, this view on the nature and value of academic study sounds very foreign to our ears. And yet, on reflection of my own ~16 years of study in school and more years out of it, I think I agree.

What were the most valuable exercises I ever worked on in school? Keeping my eyes trained on the conductor during a 2.5 hour orchestra rehearsal. Reading every word of an essay out-loud a hundred times so as the tweak the rhetoric and even the sounds of the words until they were as true, convincing, and even beautiful as I could make them (in my limited skill and experience). Reading a really long and dense book slowly and trying to figure out what was being said. In all these cases I failed. My eyes strayed from the conductor. I let some clunky passages in my essay slide. I only understood maybe 15% of the heavy book. And none of these challenging exercises ever directly earned me a dime. I’ve never been a professional musician. I’ve never written a long speech or essay like that for my job. I’ve never learned any computer programming from digesting long books on the subject (sorry Donald Knuth!).

Looking back though, now that I’m nearly 40 years old, these were the very best things I ever did in school. They developed my attention, which has yielded truckloads of fruit. These things also, as Weil suggests, have taught me to pray better. And that’s solid gold.

I’ve seen Simone Weil referenced by numerous writers over the years, but I’ve never read any of her work myself. I just got a hold of a short anthology and cracked it open. At first glance it seems that Weil is what Thomas Merton would have become if he had been a woman and become a professor instead of a monk. The similarities are many. Both were born in France only a few years apart form each other. Both had a dramatic conversion to Christianity in their twenties. Both died far too early. Their writing style appears to be similar as well.

This is just a preface to say that I was arrested by some of her commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. This passage in particular is just dynamite! I’m going to just leave it here without further comment.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future.

First there is the right to a certain permanence. When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort whatever its nature, be it work, suffering, or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul.

Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we. need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

To have forgiven our debtors is to have renounced the whole of the past in a lump. It is to accept that the future should still be virgin and intact, strictly united to the past by bonds of which we are ignorant, but quite free from the bonds our imagination thought to impose upon it. It means that we accept the possibility that. this will happen, and that it may happen to us in particular; it means that we are prepared for the future to render all our past life sterile and vain.

In renouncing at one stroke all the fruits of the past without exception, we can ask of God that our past sins may not bear their miserable fruits of evil and error. So long as we cling to the past, God himself cannot stop this horrible fruiting. We cannot hold on to the past without retaining our crimes, for we are unaware of what is most essentially bad in us.

The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this. From our point of view the equilibrium of the world is a combination of circumstances so ordered that our personality remains intact and seems to belong to us. All the circumstances of the past that have wounded our personality appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.

To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.

The words “Thy will be done” imply this acceptance, if we say them with all our soul, That is why we can say a few moments later: “We forgive our debtors.”

The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death. If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us. For to ask him to forgive us our debts is to ask him to wipe out the evil in us. Pardon is purification. God himself has not the power to forgive the evil in us while it remains there. God will have forgiven our debts when he has brought us to the state of perfection.

Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.

Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. And we have killed him”.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind lately though and early on I think she more or less describes what is really going on:

…it may be wise to reflect upon what we really mean when we observe that theology, philosophy, metaphysics have reached and end – certainly not that God has died, something about which we can know as little as about God’s existence (so little, in fact, that even the world “existence” is misplace), but that the way God had been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional THOUGHT of God. And something similar is true of the end of philosophy and metaphysics: not that the old questions which are coeval with the appearance of men on earth have become “meaningless,” but that the way they were framed and answered has lost plausibility.
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p.10

So it’s not that God died, but rather that we no longer know how to talk about God – how to “frame” questions about meaning and metaphysics. Is this a loss or a gain? The priests of secular atheism today simple declare it was obviously a gain and quickly dismiss any remaining whiff of them in the air. But is LOSING the words and thoughts to even imagine a subject a gain? No matter what is being talked about, it sounds like a loss to me.

Imagine a high-concept science fiction novel where generations of humans are raised by increasingly intelligent robots. Along the way, all knowledge about how the robots were first built, or how the basics of electronic wiring even works at all were lost. One day, the robots all suddenly shut down due to some Y2k-esque software bug. The humans are thrown into disarray as nobody even has the words or thoughts to even contemplate beginning to repair the robots. Man is resilient though and learns to go on living without them, regressing to some kind of early bronze-age society. The robots are dead. Oh well. A few generations later the stories about them seem to be little more than myths. Is this gain or a loss that nobody can productively talk or even think about the caretaker robots anymore? Sounds like a loss to me.

It’s been 11 years since I first read Rene Girard’s ‘Things Hidden’. I just finished rereading it for the first time yesterday. I certainly understood at least a little more of it this time than I did on the first pass. At the same time, there were huge chunks of the conversation that were hard to follow, mostly because I’m still not well acquainted with the thinkers he is constantly referencing and grappling with. In the past 11 years, despite reading several hundred books, I have still yet to read a single word of Freud, Levi-Straus, Nietzsche, Frazer, Dostoevsky, Proust, and a host of others. On the other hand, I have read a lot of secondary material, including the majority of Girard’s other major works in English, some of his colleague Oughourlian, and work by other people in Girard’s orbit like James Allison and Gil Bailie. So I’ve had the gaping holes somewhat filled in a bit, albeit from the downstream direction.

Probably the largest question I have currently is how to reconcile Girard’s “non-sacrificial reading” of scripture, which, at first glance seems obviously incompatible with orthodoxy. In fact, I’ve seen more than a few people dismiss Girard’s work out of hand as relying on Marcionite garbage. I think that even if it IS, there is still a lot of value to be found nonetheless. I am also somewhat more optimistic now that a better and more holistic reading of the OT can be articulated that still makes room for it traditional Christian thought. Sounds like a lot of work though. Oh well, for now.

Time to change the subject.

Upon rereading all this a few days ago, one passage struck me almost poetically:

JMO: They persist in believing that the concept of divinity is a ‘natural’ one; the sacred king is held to be a kind of reversal of divinity for the sake of political power which is supposedly independent of ritual.

RG: Everyone repeats that the king is a kind of ‘living god’ but no one says that the divinity is a kind of dead king, or at any rate an ‘absent’ king, which would be just as accurate. In the end, there is a persistent preference for viewing the sacrifice and sacredness of the king as a secondary and supplementary idea, for we must beware of rocking our little conceptual boat. Yet what guides our interpretation is only a conceptual system dominated by the idea of divinity, a theology. Skepticism about religion does not abolish this theological perspective. We are forced to reinterpret all religious schemata in terms of divinity because we are unaware of the surrogate victim. If one examines psychoanalysis and Marxism closely it becomes evident that this theology is indispensable for them.

We Christians earnestly looking forward to the second advent of Christ, we are in fact literally saying that “God is an absent king”. He really is the king. And everything good that was ever thought or imagined about an earthly king, that is what he is and more. And he really is absent. He’s not dead. He’s not imaginary. He’s just not here right now. He’s in heaven (wherever that is exactly) at the moment. But he’s only temporarily absent. There is a sense in which all men, and even all creation, are earnestly awaiting the king to come back. Our long deep-seated sociological and psychological urge to sacralize earthly kings (which Girard articulates particularly well) is rich evidence of this longing.

Atheists and secularists say that we try to project god onto our political rulers to give them more power, but in fact the opposite is true. We project earthly kingship onto God because it’s a valid and (more or less) true analogy. Those who despair then say that “the king is dead”, but we the faithful say “the king is absent”, and then add, more specifically, “come Lord Jesus!” (with the exclamation mark!).

The image is of Christ Enthroned, a icon commissioned by Ethiopian Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes, in the 17th century, for a church in Gondar.

Overgrown is what virtually every living thing becomes when it is not tended.
If the lawn isn’t mowed, it becomes a seeded prairie.
If the path isn’t kept trimmed and cleared of fallen trees, it is reclaimed by the forest.
A garden that isn’t regularly weeded will soon become nothing but large weeds and a few 7-foot long zucchini.
If you stop cutting your hair, it will cover your eyes.
None of this takes millennia or centuries to happen. Just a year or two or sometimes only a week is necessary.

Fortunately, by design our own bodies don’t grow too much. Something deep inside us says “stop!” at just the right time.
Medical professionals would say it’s the pituitary gland that does this, though that is just the mechanism. It doesn’t tell us why.
If the mechanism is broken though, one could end up like Andre the Giant – overgrown and in agony.
The 103rd psalmist tells us that our bodies are like grass, quickly withering and thrown into the fire.
But our bodies are also NOT like grass, which can thrive mown or unmown.
It is not right for us to be overgrown – either in body or especially in psychological stature – ego.
We are tended by a master gardener that keeps us pruned beautiful and pleasing and fruitful.
If he lets us go, we become overgrown, thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, before collapsing under our own leafy, tangled weight.
A good prayer may be to ask to grow to the right size in body, mind, and soul.

I’ve had more adventures in cooking dinner from scratch these past two weeks. Some hits and misses ensued. I used the following new ingredients I never had before:

  • Fresh scallions
  • Frozen shrimp (on skewers)
  • Frozen uncooked tilapia fillets (broiled for fish tacos)
  • Whole Peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • Whole minced leeks (I’ve used leeks for a soup once before but it was eons ago)
  • Whole chopped fennel
  • Sesame oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Red wine vinegar

The “whole” stuff was for a baked marinara sauce I tried out of a ridiculously heavy Thomas Keller cookbook that I found on clearance for $1 at the thrift store. It turned out to be very flavorful, but pretty time consuming and a bit on the chunky side, despite being pureed. This might work better as a double batch and then save half of it for way later.

The oils were for a couple different styles of stir fry. The verdict is still out on those. The sauce never turns out thick enough, even with corn starch and the prescribed proportions.

The tilapia smelled unpleasantly fishy when raw, but was surprisingly mild after cooked.

I need to take a break though and mix in some comfort food to help the kids not dread dinner so much. Muhahahaha!

Many things, I can remember learning. I can roughly remember when I learned something and how I didn’t know what it was before then. I remember the first time I heard Dire Strait’s The Sultans of Swing, when I was about 13, while listening to the classic rock radio station while driving truck during the summer wheat harvest. I remember my father explaining some basic trigonometry to me with a pen and paper when I was about 10 years old. We were trying to calculate how high my model rocket had flown. I remember my mother reading the Chronicles of Narnia to me when I was about 6 years old and having to ask what a Centaur was. I was not familiar with the idea of a half horse/half man.

But somethings you learn so young or they are so ubiquitous, you can’t remember ever having learned them. Dragons are one of those things. I wasn’t born knowing anything about this legendary fiery beast, but I might as well have been. There is no time or place I can recall when and where I didn’t already know a great deal about these creatures. They were already old news when I heard about Eustace being turned into one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They were familiar when I saw one in an old episode of Duck Tales. Trogdor was at least the thousandth one I’d seen, though he stands out in the crowd for obvious reasons.

Was there ever a time without dragons? Nearly(?) every culture on earth has them. The serpent in Genesis sounds a bit more dragonish than a modern day danger noodle. Later in John’s Revelation there is no pretension. The original dragon has been around since before the first days of our race. Little wonder that we can’t remember a time without him. Someday we will though.