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False Variety

When my son was sick yesterday, we got desperate for a diversion and watched A Wrinkle In Time on Netflix. I don’t want to get into the theological problems of the book’s author, Madeleine L’Engle, but let it be admitted that she came from a Christian culture, attended a Christian church, and infused her writing with symbols and quotes of Jesus, which were tellingly absent from the film. As a replacement, the film delivered a mishmash of new age aphorisms about love and light and believing in yourself. Also, it delivered a fair amount of diversity that was lacking in the author’s world. L’Engle unapologetically created a white European cast of characters — and not just in this book, but in all of them. The director apparently thought color-washing instead of white-washing would take a wooden script and delivery and make it sparkle, but it didn’t work. And I certainly don’t blame that on the actors, who might sparkle under good directing. Kaling and Witherspoon are known quantities; Kaling can be very funny, and Witherspoon definitely sparkles in some of her films. I also have hopes for the new-ish actress who plays Meg.

Despite the film’s failing at taking a weird SF tale and a few good actors and making it better than bland and boring (I mean, come on, they had a lot to work with here), it did produce one scene that stuck in my mind. When Meg and company land on the planet cloaked in evil, they find a neighborhood where all the children of all races are bouncing their balls to the same beat. This is followed by the mothers — again, of all races — simultaneously calling in their children to dinner using the same words. What you see is Hollywood admitting a central truth of our culture: our push for diversity is outward and doesn’t really mask the general lack of appreciation for eclecticism. I found myself asking if this weren’t perhaps a meta moment, where the film was taking a good hard look at itself. I suppose even Hollywood creators are capable of accidental moments of clarity.

False variety is present in every layer of our society. From the products that fill our grocery store, to politicians, to “edgy” thinkers, there is very little real variety. In 90% of brands, the ingredients are the same. The yogurt is all low-fat. The bacon has the same list of ingredients on nearly every label. Everything packaged tastes like canola oil. McCain was eulogized by almost every segment of society because his conservatism was the same as the their liberalism. The Bushes and Clintons play golf together.

What got me thinking about this was the cancellation of the Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter tour in Australia. It was canceled for no apparent reason, and the ticket holders were told they could switch their tickets out to see Tommy Robinson and Gavin McInnes, as if “edgy” thinkers are all exactly alike. And to be fair, generally they are very similar when push comes to shove. Edgy is allowed, if it fits into the right parameters of what “edgy” means. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Milo has been permanently banned from Twitter; McInnes’ organization The Proud Boys was recently banned from Facebook. Although all four of these rightist thinkers are edgy rabble-rousers, none of them are of the appropriate “edgy” variety. Swapping one group out for the other is a stop-gap measure before these types of tours just never find any venues at all, edgy money notwithstanding.

Albeit, sometimes I think I’m just not seeing the entire picture. I mean, obviously, I’m not God. Or even QAnon. In any case, most of our edgy rabble-rousers provide absurdist level distractions.

I don’t have a profound point to end with here — unless I want to tie this post back to Trump in some way. I don’t know how profound that would be, more like inevitable. Trump is the renewed version of Godwin’s law. Everything comes back to him. And it’s perhaps too easy, really. Trump did not and still does not have the same ingredients as the other products on the shelves, which is why his sudden salability has driven the “producers” or “authorities” to frothing at the mouth every few seconds.


Sin Duda

Before we moved to New Mexico, we went on a scouting expedition: explorers entering a foreign land to determine if it could actually sustain life. That’s an exaggeration. For us, in any case. What isn’t is the mysterious nature of the high desert to people who grew up at sea level with their toes blue from soaking in the Pacific Ocean.

We camped at Water Canyon, which is 6800 feet elevation at the trailhead. In this unfamiliar land, in the dark of night, we heard the clanging of trash bin lids, a sound we recognized from our Oregon camping life. While it’s possible human vagrants enjoy banging cans in the middle of the night as they search for scraps of food, it’s more likely to be bears. And judging by the signs around the camp that warned against the beasts, bears were most likely responsible.

First the bears found us, and then it started raining. Although we’ve since learned that water in Water Canyon is a rare phenomenon, it fooled us on that first visit because it rained so hard we thought we might be washed down the gully — and make no mistake, this happens. When it rains in New Mexico, it pours. It floods.

To be honest, rain is also a familiar sound to Oregonians. The desert operates in extremes, though. It operates in high highs and low lows, in emptiness followed by arroyos clogged by floods that rip out shrubs and break away the dry wood. And so a new cycle in our lives ensued, heralded by floods and bears and the birth of a new child. She was born in the rain of New Mexico, before the high desert gave way to its other extremes.

In Oregon, I swam in the ocean. I swam in great rivers. As a child, I nearly drowned in an Oregon lake because I didn’t have the stamina to swim to shore — and that was one of the smaller bodies of water. Water disappearing was not part of my childhood. In fact, it was rather the opposite. The water was so everpresent in Oregon that it fully saturated my head. But here in New Mexico, I experienced extreme dryness for the first time.

Bears hibernate and then lumber awake, and they are fierce and hungry and full of aching life, banging on trash cans to find it. Desert waterways are the same. They are conceptually like bears — symbols of constant rebirth. While the droughts last, the Rio Grande dies completely in places; in others, it lingers, but only as peaceful rivulets etching out waving patterns in the sand. But when the rains come — and I mean really come! — the Rio Grande turns into a wild river that spreads over its banks, fierce and hungry and full of aching life. It becomes a rio salvaje.

These cycles in life are normal, but they are writ large in the consciousness of New Mexicans who must live through the droughts before the rains will come. After living here for twenty years, I’ve come to see my life as a series of droughts and floods. I, too, operate in extremes in work and sleep. Since moving away from the River Valley three years ago, I’ve been in a perpetual drought. At least it has felt that way. I haven’t been creative or intellectual or offered anything of value to the world. I’ve been in a desolate wasteland. A drought before storms.

But lately…lately, I’ve been picturing my many projects and variant skillsets like the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel’s vision, God connected the disparate bones together, ball into appropriate socket. The bones took on flesh, and God breathed life into them just as he had done to Adam. In fact, this ghostly vision of dry bones rising up has haunted my mind for months. Then the reality of the vision hit me: God was going to renew his people. It was a promise he made through the prophets. By extension, God promises to save us through Jesus breathing new life into our dry bones. But through Jesus, the cycle was completed. There would no longer need to be droughts followed by floods; no more hibernation followed by the intense hunger of awakening. I should have already known this, but there is a difference between knowing something and accepting it as truth in the core of being.

The spirit of God is a deluge, but like the River Valley, his great river has been diverted into arroyos, watering the crops that have sustained the people for centuries. In the yearly cycles of the Rio Grande, the diverted flood waters have led to the harvests of fall. And that’s where they’ve led me. Not to a time of rebirth, reawakening, or an opening of the flood waters, because that already happened. On a micro level, seasons still occur in our spiritual walk with God, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the once-for-all renewal that planted a seed that has already sprouted and grown continually in the direction of the light. That harvest, watered by the spirit, is now ready to be brought in.

It strikes me that I have friends who are also entering their time of harvest, but they, too, sense instead that they’re in drought, that the fruits they’ve labored to produce have died on the vine before bringing anything to the world. Or they sense the harvest passed them by, leaving their fruit to rot. But this is not true. The Bible promises it is not true, in numerous passages. In Psalms: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” In Philipians: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” In Psalms again: “He [whose delight is in the law of God] is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” In Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The time of harvest is, in a sense, also a foreign land, but not a place I can scout out ahead of time to get a lay of the land. I have a sense of the harvest, anyway. I have a sense from reading about the harvests of saints who’ve gone before me. I can sense it in other ways, too. And it’s good. The work to bring it in may be difficult, but the fruit is there because the harder work, the initial work, happened a long time ago.


A Vision of Life

¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is an image you will find all over the SW. In that sense, she has been near me ever since moving to New Mexico. At Mass on Sunday, the priest, who is Polish — as in, from Poland, not born in America — spoke of the Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sunday. That’s the reach this particular Marian vision has had; she’s connected to the giving of life here and abroad.

Nevertheless, she uniquely belongs to Mexican identity, dating from the 16th C when the native Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, experienced four visions of her. She spoke to him in the Nahuatl language of his people, and identified herself as Mary the mother of Jesus. Her message to him was simple: build a shrine at the location of the first vision. Further visions were necessary because the local bishop didn’t believe Juan’s story — the last vision of which was stamped on Juan’s cloak. The image on the cloak has become the template for the Our Lady of Guadalupe we see depicted today: pregnant with head bowed, indicating she wasn’t the goddess Juan’s people revered, but a worshiper of God and a bearer of the Christ child.

Mexico’s history of Christianity isn’t perfect by any measure. The Spaniards conquered and colonized a land belonging to others. At the same time, they were Catholics, following a religion that was intermixed with their monarchical government. So the results of the Spanish-Catholic mission was mixed at best — mixed up with military power and greed. Hence, the vast spread of the gospel was brought to the native Mexicans, not through the domineering Spanish-Catholic government, but through a native son and his humble vision of a maiden. And through this vision, the practice of human sacrifice was eventually eradicated from the land of Mexico.

Make no mistake: the Aztecs weren’t a simply a peaceful nation overtaken by the brutal Spanish. They were themselves a brutal people, both as a military force and in their practice of regular human sacrifice. In some estimations (scholarly estimations differ), they were sacrificing 20% of their population. The gods they worshiped were cults of death. This is why Our Lady of Guadalupe is associated with a life-giving message. The visions of her subverted the death and destruction of both worlds, Aztec and Spanish, and brought peace among the nativos, criollos, and mestizos.

I found myself thinking of St. Patrick of Ireland — my native culture, somewhere back there — when the priest spoke of Juan Diego and his visions. In both cases, Christianity was already present to some extent in these lands of pagan worship; yet, in both cases, these men are credited with the wide-spread belief in Christianity. In addition, they have both become the very identity of their respective nations, albeit Juan Diego’s vision is larger than he is. And, in both cases, legends have sprung up around them, such that it’s difficult to determine what is factual and what is mythical about their stories.

Apart from these obvious similarities, I recognize a twin soul in Mexico and Ireland. The term soul is slippery in this context. What do I mean exactly? I don’t know, but the San Patricios recognized it when they defected from the United States and joined the Mexicanos during the Mexican War. Although there are a number of theories as to why these men defected, simply put, the soul here is most likely that of Catholicism. Those heady days when Catholicism was used for political purposes had given way to Protestantism’s unholy marriage with the state. This marriage caused suffering in Ireland, and was now encroaching on the Mexican border.

On a more spiritual note, like other Catholic nations, Ireland has had its share of Marian visions. A mother is very important to the human soul and apparently very important to the Catholic soul. In essence, it’s related to the very idea of a motherland, something which many Irish have lost, and which the Aztecs were busy losing in the days of Spanish conquest. A mother brings forth life that leads to connections among humans, just as the earth brings forth food that binds a society together. However, in worshiping a goddess, the people are worshipping something they long for but don’t understand: a culture of life. Ultimately, the life people long for is the Christ child, and this is why Mary is the ultimate woman. She isn’t a goddess, but a bearer of God.

More specifically, I see these two nations as clinging to a culture of life through their religious faith and being attacked at the very heart of that culture of life. Their strength becomes their weakness. Mexico is in the grip of violence, as Ireland has been for centuries.* That’s what my mind was reaching for when I suddenly thought of St. Patrick while listening to a homily on Our Lady of Guadalupe. That’s always what my mind reaches for, in every story I write, and the manner in which I live. I’m reaching for a culture of life and having to fight against the inevitable attacks from the culture of death that surrounds me.

It’s my prayer today and always that the culture of life wins. Of course it wins. What would the gospel mean if death prevailed instead of life? Yet, it’s up to us as humans to be bearers of that life that Jesus gave us. That’s the great commission from beginning to end: be fruitful and multiply, bringing the gospel to all nations just as Mary brought forth Jesus.

*There are some ironies that have occurred in Ireland since the settling of peace in the 1990s, but it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into that. Human societies and their evolution–>devolution processes are consistent and ironic at the same time.


Truth: What Is It?

I’m writing this as a warm-up piece, don’t know when I’ll actually post it. It might ramble a little.


I’m at an action scene in my book, which takes a lot of energy to write. For the unaware, writing can be incredibly exhausting. It’s like exercise, though. It’s good for you, and once you’ve done your “workout” for the day, you’re a lot happier and at peace with yourself.

I started taking a class on Wednesday nights, a church “midweek refresher” kind of thing. For those who’ve known me for a long time, you know that I eschewed Bible studies years ago. I know you know because I got a lot of pushback on my position, which I still hold to. Lifelong Christians spend their childhoods learning scripture in Sunday school and church, only to graduate to adult Bible studies post high school. In these adult Bible studies, they sit and argue over the meanings of passages and terms; some of the hardcore debaters bring their Strongs’ and transliterations. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that wrangling over words in Bible studies has become synonymous with being a (caveat: Protestant) Christian for many people. Therefore, they never quit this phase of student life because it’s what Christianity means to them. By contrast, it’s my contention that we shouldn’t be students all our lives. We should go forward into the life of Christian vocation.

I don’t mean that we should ever stop reading the sacred scriptures and meditating on it. In fact, this is one reason I appreciate the liturgical calendar. Not only is the Word of God spoken out loud to the congregation every Sunday, there are passages to be read daily. I get them here. What I’m opposed to is continuing to sit in a hot stuffy room (or a drafty cold one) and arguing about what every passage means down to the letter of each Greek and Hebrew word, long after the student days have ended. Apprenticeships are meant to turn into vocations. Vocations do require upkeep, but they don’t require the kind of intense learning that a student engages in.

That is all philosophical, though. The truth is I used to have two modes: the observation and thinking mode; and the combative one, where I had to argue everything because my ego was wrapped up in knowing more than others. I still have two modes (quiet observation and thinking; then speaking), but my ego is no longer wrapped up in knowing more than others. Knowledge is useful, but when is it enough? When do I have enough knowledge to “armor” me into becoming an active agent in the world?

This midweek refresher does verge on being a Bible study. And that’s okay, I think; it’s an upkeep class for me, one that brings me and hopefully others necessary encouragement. And the funny thing is God knows what we need. He knows before we ask. So when I signed up for this course — there were three options — I didn’t know that the above was exactly what the teachers would be talking about.

The class subject is becoming a conqueror by putting on the armor of God. When we put on this armor, we don’t remain frozen as an inanimate suit of metal. There happens to be an inanimate suit of armor in the school room where this class meets (the church has a private school attached). It looks sturdy and ready to go into battle, but it’s hollow inside and therefore can’t move. What’s the purpose of armor that remains frozen in a room? The spiritual application is that we are to be not just hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. And how do we do that? We begin with truth. Not the truth of the world, which adds qualifiers such as my truth or their truth, but a First Principles truth that creates a foundation for everything else. This is also not the kind of truth that emerges from wrangling over which Bible student has the most clever insight into a passage. It’s not about a Bible student’s ego. And God’s truth is greater than any clever insight we could come up with. God’s truth is quite literally the foundation of the universe.

This First Principles truth is the foundation that carries us out into the world to do what God has called us to do. And doing what God has called us to do brings us peace. Going back to my first paragraph, it brings me peace when I complete tasks like exercise, writing, and editing. How much greater peace will I have when I am actively fulfilling God’s purpose for my life? This is the subject we discussed in class last evening, and I think it’s very important — also something that I’ve been struggling with for years: the peace with God vs the peace of God.

Of vs with? Isn’t that wrangling over words a little? Maybe, but it’s also highlighting a straightforward biblical concept. When we are saved through Jesus, we have made peace with God. We are no longer fighting against him. When we act out our salvation (that is, when we are inspired by our salvation), we have the peace of God that can only come from living according to his will and purpose. And that peace, which comes from pleasing God by our actions, leads to our joy.


Camus Kaze and the Best School Project Ever

The world, at times, is not a happy place. So it was for Al Camus from the time he was a small girl. If he was a girl -- which he doubted. He was also never small. Large, tubby, corpulent: these were the adjectives that described Al.
 "Alberta!" his mother hollered from the bathroom. "You used the last tampon and didn't tell me!"
 It was useless to explain to his mom that he couldn't have told her he'd used her last tampon because boys didn't use tampons. Al's mom believed he was a girl. Al's mom was frustratingly unenlightened about the world.
 Often, and especially at times like these, Al wished his mom were Japanese. Oh, she was Japanese; she just wasn't uber identity-based Japanese. She was American and had slovenly American ways. When Al passed the bathroom, he had to turn his head because the bathroom door was cracked open, revealing the mess of clothes and towels on the floor. At dinnertime, Al generally wished his dad were really French, too, so they could eat decent food.
 Put it all together, and Al was disgruntled with his life. He snagged a package of Nutter Butters and a bag of Hot Cheetos, and made his way to the back patio table where he could work on his homework in peace. He swept off his dad's beer cans and cigarette butts and spread out his books. He opened his math book and closed it. Al hated math. He opened his science book, and then shut that one, too. He was failing science, and it was too late in the year to fix it.
 But Al had a bigger problem. Tomorrow, he had to give his oral report for history class. The students had drawn World War II topics from the teacher's disgusting greasy ballcap; he had drawn "kamikaze pilots". At his peak performance, Al was a mediocre student. He had resigned himself to this reality years ago. Someday, he would no longer have to be a student. For now, he put most of his effort into keeping his head above the social waters.
 Oral reports were not the best way to prevent this particular style of drowning. By now, it was standard practice for someone to make farting noises at him while he walked up to the front. Last year in English, someone had oinked like a pig, while Al had stumbled, blushed, and forgotten what his topic was mid sentence. It didn't matter that the teacher had sent the oinker out of class because the damage had already been done. Even the teacher couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.
 This year, he'd prepared ahead of time by dying his hair black, and then adding white stripes. Sick dyed hair was a good way to gain instant street cred. Until oral report day, though, he had to wear a beanie. He didn't want the shock value to be lost.
 Al's phone bleeped at him, and all thoughts of schoolwork fled from his mind. Well, not exactly. Al was trying to recruit the class gamer boys to help him with his presentation by doing cosplay. So far, two wanted to be samurais, and the third said he would come as a sumo wrestler if it wasn't blatant cultural appropriation.
 "But I'm Japanese," Al reminded them.
 They'd all laughed uproariously. "Sure, you are, Alberta."
 They'd repeated his name several times, as if it was relevant to being Japanese or not.
 One of the samurai volunteers had just texted him to ask him where his sword was. Al had promised to provide real swords in exchange for their help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, an easy prop to acquire -- surely, something the school would allow once they realized it was for a history lesson. Because kamikazes. Because kamikazes had nothing to do with samurais, but they were both Japanese, and Al was Japanese, so...
 "I'll have them on the day," he texted back.
 "You'd better," was the response.
 Al racked his brain, trying to come up with a secondary option. If he couldn't get a hold of real samurai swords, maybe he could empty his mom's change jars and buy Nerf swords at Wal Mart. If he couldn't get anyone to drive him there, he guessed cardboard and foil would look snazzy.
 His phone bleeped again. "Hey, ur going to be the sumo, right? Lololol."
 That was all the text said. Al's face heated up, and his heart pounded. Didn't the gamer boys like him? Wasn't he one of them? Maybe they wanted to include him in the cosplay. Maybe it wasn't a dig on his weight.
 Who was he kidding? It didn't matter, anyway. What mattered was their making him look cool.
 From the kitchen this time, Al heard his mom hollering at him. "Al, get in here and clean up this mess! I want the kitchen clean when i get home from work."
 His mom worked nights at Circle K. Since his dad was still gone God knew where, nobody would be around to take him to Wal Mart. Al would have to make cardboard swords. If he worked really hard on the design, they might look even better than real ones.
 He pushed aside his largely empty 3x5 cards and spread out some soggy broken down boxes that were in a stack on the porch. So he hadn't gotten around to writing relevant facts and information on the cards. He figured he could fudge a little, as long as everybody was distracted by samurais.
 After working steadily for a couple of hours -- he'd never had any intention of doing what his mom had told him to -- his swords didn't live up to the image in his head.
 But he was tired now, and he had to live with what he'd prepared for his oral report on kamikazes, which included a few samurai swords and a vague idea that kamikazes were suicide pilots. He'd be fine.
 Alberta was never fine. When he rolled himself out of bed the next morning, he threw up. Nerves. Or too many Hot Cheetos. Why couldn't his parents make dinner like normal people? He opened a bottle of Red Bull and chugged it. After that, he pulled off the beanie he'd been wearing for a week and pressed his hair down with water. After that, he barely had enough time to make a run for the school bus.
 Once he'd managed the social nightmare of sitting down, he realized he'd forgotten the swords. It was no use asking the bus driver to stop so he could run home and fetch them. She waited for nobody.
 The school's air conditioner had broken, which made Al sweat profusely. That didn't even count the sweat that poured down when he thought of history class. He saw the gamer boys at their lockers, and he turned from them, afraid. They weren't popular. It wasn't that. They had a place in the world, and Al didn't.
 If they helped him, people would say, "Oh, I didn't know Al was a geek. That explains everything."
 But eventually, history class rolled around, like all dreaded classes did. And when he arrived, there was nobody there. A note hung on the door: "Meeting outside today at the lunch tables. Too hot inside!" Al groaned. Sunlight was the worst kind for his complexion.
 From a distance, he watched his classmates settled comfortably on the benches, including the gamer boys, who were leaning over their phones. Phones weren't allowed inside, but now they were outside, so...
 Al pulled out his phone. There was a single text: "No swords, no deal. But awesome sumo costume."
 He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with it. And that was when it happened, the sudden compulsion to squash them like the tiny insignificant bugs they were. Either that, or hurl himself from the roof and end it all. Conveniently, the air conditioner work people had left a ladder for him to climb.
 Wow, they really did look like insignificant bugs from up here.
 "Hey!" he screamed. "I'm giving my oral report up here!"
 Their pleasingly shocked faces stared up at him. Mr. Thorpe, the teacher, looked like he was sending for help, as his pet student went scurrying off.
 "Alberta, you need to come down from there!" he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.
 "My name's not Alberta!"
 The entire class was now huddled beneath him. They looked worried. Good. The teacher was on his phone now, completely ignoring Al. Or calling the po!ice. Oh, God, not the police. He hadn't meant for this to get out of hand. He paced nervously at the edge of the roof, huddled over in anxiety.
 One of the gamer boys pointed at him. "Oh, my God, she really is a sumo!"
 "I'm not a she," Al cried. "I'm not a..."
 This was going to be his best oral report. Melancholy filled his soul, as he now knew what he had to do.
 "I'm a Camus Kaze!" He declared, as the divine wind rushed through his godlike hair.
 And then he jumped, aiming himself right at the teacher.
 It was too bad he missed.