Of battles and bittersweet discoveries

From the rear-view mirror, the weekend feels like it must have been one of those three-day operations, enhanced either by a holiday or a vacation day. But it was only Regular Size. Two different and dissimilar events in two different places conspire to leave the impression. Not to mention all the driving. But it was great driving—high quality, expensive driving on gas worth more than three bucks a gallon. How’s that for luxurious living?

I’d packed my Viking apparatus into Mrs. Hermanson the night before, and so was able to start south immediately after work. The road was Highway 169, a Minnesota favorite once you get past the congestion around Shakopee. 169 winds through a beautiful wooded valley in the St. Peter and Mankato areas It’s one of my favorite drives in the state. With Sissel on the stereo it doesn’t get much better (at least in my emotionally impoverished life). I was saddened, however, to see that one of my favorite Dairy Queens in the world, the one out in the country north of Mankato, has closed down after all these years. The last time I stopped they’d expanded their facility. Perhaps they overreached. A lesson to us all.

The road got narrower and less picturesque as Iowa approached, but I carried on. The people of the Bode (pronounced “Boad”), Iowa “Uff Da Days” festival put the cowardly Vikings (those who, like me, did not care to camp in tents) up in a motel in Humboldt, about twenty minutes away. I went there and slept well.

The day dawned gray, wet and stormy, but the forecast on the Weather Channel said it should clear, and it did that. The day went well, a welcome contrast to the heat and poor attendance in Decorah a week before. Bode is a very small town (about 350 residents), but we actually had more visitors to our encampment in one day there than we had in two days in Decorah.

We did four Live Steel Combat performances. I link to this page from a Viking discussion board where Eric posted some photos. I make the link, not because it’s terribly illuminating, but because I think I look fairly studly in the pictures, for an aging fat guy. I came home with a bruise on my left shoulder, and another on my ribcage. Also abrasions on both shins and the underside of my right forearm. I bear them proudly. They are wounds of honor. Eric is catching up to me, beating me more often than I beat him. He’s learning my tricks. However, I did fight Ragnar to a draw (we “killed” each other) once, so maybe I’m learning too.

It’s tough in small towns these days. They seem to be on the wrong side of history, and they know it. Economics and government subsidies favor big farms, so that instead of a hundred small farms, each feeding a family, you’ve got one big farm with a single family and a few employees, often transients. The towns have lost their economic base. Jonah Goldberg wrote about farm subsidies recently in National Review, and what he said was all true. But it doesn’t change the fact that a small, rural American town may have been the best environment for raising kids in the history of the world. And we’re losing it as we watch.

We tore down the camp Saturday evening, and after another pleasant motel night I set out for Belmond, Iowa and the Severson Family Reunion. I remembered that my church body has a congregation in Goldfield, Iowa, through which I passed, so I hunted it down and attended there. It’s a very small church at the best of times, and this was summer, so there were only about ten of us. The pastor is a Licensed Lay Pastor who drives up from Des Moines. Without the expense of a full-time minister, they manage to get by.

I enjoyed the service. It was neither emotional nor elegant, but it was familiar to me—more like the services I grew up with than what we have at the church I attend today. I don’t know how long it’s been since I heard a pastor give thanks for the crops. I felt I was among my own people (I know it’s wrong and evil for anyone with white skin to say that, but that was how I felt). And the sermon spoke to me.

Then on to Belmond. The reunion met in a nursing home’s dining room. Attendance was poor this year. People blamed gas prices. But the potluck was sumptuous. I met a distant relative (a lady of course) who was 91 years old. We can do better than that at the Walker reunions, but then we have higher attendance and a larger pool. I told them the story of my search for Cousin Trygve’s ancestor. I won a door prize (nearly everyone did). Everyone seemed pleased to meet me. They don’t get many people from my branch of the family at these do’s.

Then Bob, the organizer I met in Decorah, offered to take me to Kanawha, Iowa (the epicenter of Severson history in this country) to look for Trygve’s ancestor’s grave. I followed him the ten miles there, and out to the tree-bordered cemetery. It’s not a large cemetery, but I despaired of finding a single grave, without a map.

But Bob knew the place well. We started going around to places (mostly at the west end) where family was buried, on the theory that relatives tend to group together. He showed me various graves—one the son of the man I was looking for. I looked over and said, “There’s a stone that says Swelland.” (Swelland was my dad’s maternal grandmother’s married name, and she was a Severson). I went and looked at it and found a large family stone in a plot that otherwise contained only a single grave—that of Dad’s uncle Theodore, who died in a threshing engine explosion in 1918. The Swellands had a penchant for leaving underpopulated grave plots behind. They left one in my home town, Kenyon, Minnesota, too, with only my great-grandmother in it. My family took it over, and my grandparents and two aunts and an uncle are buried there. It belongs to me now, and I hope to lie there in time (but not too soon). Martha Severson Swelland’s been alone on her side of the stone a long time.

As I was photographing Theodore’s grave, Bob said, “Here’s the one you’re looking for.” I walked a few feet over to where he stood, and there was the gravestone Cousin Trygve wanted. I took several pictures for him.

I drove away triumphant.

Only afterward did I think that it might be sad for Trygve, in a way. He’d wanted to learn his ancestor’s story, but it may be he’d hoped to learn some good reason why the old man had cut off all communication with his unacknowledged offspring in Norway. If he’d died young and poor, for instance, that would be an excuse.

But he lived to be 90 and did all right for himself. One understands that after years of marriage it would be awkward to say to one’s wife, “Uh, there’s some unfinished business in Norway I need to take care of.” But for all that, the abandonment was a wrong act. This man was remembered as a Christian, a church sacristan, a man so kindly that his wife had to discipline the children. Yet at the back of his mind the old sin must have remained. Did he plan to “do something about it someday,” and did the right time just never come? Or did he try to bury the past? We can’t know, and mustn’t judge.

But it’s too bad.

Chesterton on blogging, sort of

The Jollyblogger points out advice from G.K. Chesterton to Christian journalists and applies it to Christian bloggers. It comes to use by way of Gilbert Magazine.

The “bad Christian journalist” seems to write from a worried, panicked, mindset. The sky seems to be falling to him. . . . There is no sense of “Christ the overcomer” in this, only “Christ-and-His-cause-are-about-to-be-defeated-and-we-better-do- something- now-or-we’re-all- gonna-die, . . . aaaaahhhh!!!!”

New Light by Annette Gilson

Brief Summary: Beth comes to St. Louis, Missouri, hoping to start a new chapter in her life. She doesn’t expect to have visions and get caught up in the drama of a New Age commune.

In New Light, Annette Gilson’s remarkable debut novel, her narrator, Beth, tells the curious story of her experience in St. Louis shortly after arriving from New York. It opens with what I consider the sticking point of drama, Beth’s intense visions. Without explanation or drug use, she feels her spirit burgeon, swelling into the night sky, pressing so close to stars as to feel their burn. Her vision gives her common ground with Houdini White, a scientist who has been studying vision phenomena and the New Age communities which claim to work with them. One of those communities, called New Light, is relatively close by, so Beth and Houdini visit it for several days.

It’s a quiet story, broken up by Beth’s short discussions of mystical science and conflict between the characters. Gilson’s writing carries the tension and mystery effectively throughout the book. (I love the conclusion.) At New Light, Beth and Houdini meet a leader named, The Mother, who cultivates a mystery for the dozens of people living with her. Everyone there is supposed to be a visionary, but each one comes at it differently and all interdependently. Because Beth has experienced vision outside the group, she could have remarkable gifts for their enrichment.

But do these supernatural visions tell them anything? Nothing that deep introspection wouldn’t. In this novel, supernature appears to exist as a nebulous expression of oneself. The message resolves to this: watch your world and those in it; be aware of yourself and your surroundings, then maybe you’ll have more peace than the people who strive and yearn too much.

Perhaps this is understandable peace, which is the reason the Lord God described his peace as beyond understanding. Like the poor community which doesn’t complain about filthy water, the understandably peaceful decide to be content with transcendence that doesn’t surpass their skin.

I Thought the Phrase Was ‘Cut the Cheese’

A couple language links:

  1. Today, I learned of the Big Bad Book Blog through Books, Inq. The most recent post addresses words and phrases with sound similar to the ones the speaker/writer intends, like “cut the muster” which is meant to be either “cut the mustard” or “pass muster.”
  2. Phil Schroeder of Thinklings wonders if the phrase “criss-cross applesauce” is a p.c. attempt to relabel “indian style” sitting.

Both of these posts get me thinking about the natural changes in language. “Cut the muster” could become the “right” phrase for describing something that meets our standards. I suppose it would be ignorance ushering in the change, but isn’t that part of a living language? I believe “criss-cross applesauce” is a mislabeling of cross-legged sitting, but give it several years and it may become correct.

I enjoy reading about English peculiarities, and I want to write and speak correctly, but I know that living languages don’t toe the line of the stickler, as it were. They change usually for bad reasons. Now, we no longer say “art,” “wert,” “gloam,” “eftsoons,” or “peradventure.”

P. D. James at Harrogate

Crimeficreader has posted notes from the festival interview with that wonderful author, P.D. James. One interesting note, Crimeficreader says: “James believes that imagination is a gift, that it is something you’re born with. When she was a child she knew she wanted to be a writer, but described herself as a ‘late starter’ – a comment that I’m sure will give hope to many.” Perhaps that’s so, but I know that imagination needs regular nurturing to grow and bloom.

15 minutes of fame for the wrong thing

I had an intriguing e-mail yesterday–the kind that appeals strongly to my essential exhibitionism.

It came from a well-known female reporter from a major newspaper (both of whose names are safe with me). She was responding to a comment I left on a Christian website, concerning my experience with a well-known online matchmaking service (whose identity I shall also clutch protectively to my chest). The matchmaker had declined to allow me to sign up. The reporter is doing a story on people whose experiences with online dating services have been less than optimal, and she thought my story might be helpful.

I think I disappointed her. I was willing (no, let’s be honest–eager) to be interviewed, but I had to admit that the service hadn’t done anything out of line in my case. They advertise proudly that they reject people who are bad marriage prospects, and it’s not hard to see that, by most objective standards, I’m one of that select group. She hasn’t responded to my response.

So there it is. I finally get an interview offer from a major newspaper, and it’s not about my books. It’s about my remarkable inadequacy as a potential date.

Fame is where you get it.

Or where you don’t.

(I’ll be gone till Monday. Playing Viking and going to a family reunion in Iowa. I’ll see you if I survive the rigors thereof.)

Random House Owns Multnomah

The rumor was true. Random House announced it has purchased Multnomah Publishers and will merge it with WaterBrook Press in Colorado Springs, CO. WaterBrook and Multnomah with remain separate imprints of Doubleday Broadway, a division of Random House, and in control of their respective editorial destinies though the WaterBrook president with preside over Multnomah. Random House is the world’s largest English-language trade book publisher.

Mark Bertrand on That Reoccurring Question

Mr. Bertrand talks about some pitfalls with that oft-discussed question of Christian artistic excellence.

Fiction has been called “a lie that tells the truth,” a paradox that goes to the heart of the difficulty — and explains why, historically, evangelicals have been suspicious of art and its makers. Many evangelical artists have internalized their community’s critique of art, which has led them to seek ways of doing art that evade the ‘evils’ their fellow believers have articulated. This desire not to be tainted by the criticism has, I think, contributed to the mediocrity problem. Some have been quick to dismiss what they didn’t understand, just to remain in solidarity with other evangelical critics.

For related post (as if he needs me to point out his good posts), see Mr. Bertrand’s posts on “edgy fiction”: Edgy Fiction: A 5-Part Spectrum and Mauriac’s Edgy Fiction

The poetry of Utsira

Because I’m short on ideas tonight, I’ll share a nice passage from the book I’m reading now, In Forkbeard’s Wake by Ben Nimmo. It’s the sort of book I like to discover, a sailing memoir involving the seas I describe (as a rank landlubber) in my Viking novels. Here Nimmo writes about the Norwegian island of Utsira, where (as it happens) one of my great-great-grandmothers was born:

It’s one of the peculiar facts of history that many of the world’s most moving poems aren’t actually poems at all. The King James version of I Corinthians 13 (faith, hope and charity) and the Third Collect in the Anglican Evensong are hymns without tunes; the closing paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings are the final chords of a symphony…. As far as I’m concerned, though, the most bewitching use of words ever penned comes in the Radio 4 shipping forecast.

It reads like an incantation. No matter that it’s a simple and practical way of identifying sea areas by their outstanding geological feature. No matter that every word of the forecast has a precise and numerically defined meaning: the mysterious rune ‘Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: southwest four, a thousand and two, rising more slowly, fair, moderate to poor,’ simply means that the wind over the central North Sea and the Danish and German North Sea coasts is blowing from the southwest at between eleven and sixteen knots, atmospheric pressure stands at 1002 millibars and has risen by between 0.1 and 1.5 millibars in the preceding three hours, and that it’s not raining but that surface visibility is fluctuating between five nautical miles and a thousand metres. The shipping forecast is music in words.

Viking. The Viking banks, northeast of Shetland. Dogger. The Dogger bank, so overfished that it’s the only British bank worth less than Barings. German Bight, the German bay. Rockall and Malin, Trafalgar (early mornings only) and Finisterre, Portland and Dover, the cliffs and capes. Humber, Thames, Forth, Tyne, the rivers. Biscay and Irish Sea, the bays. Faeroes and Southeast Iceland, Fastnet and Scillies, the islands.

North Utsire and South Utsire.

Norwegians call it Utsira, with the stress on the first syllable: Ut-sira. It’s an island. Just one island, a lumpy rock a mile and a half long and two miles wide, nine miles off the Rogaland coast, surrounded by long chains of spray-washed skerries. In, as it were, skerried ranks. Its eastern and western flanks build up into brooding granite howes like the Lakeland peaks, frowning across the water. Between them a broad green valley runs north to south, plunging at each extremity into a rock-edged channel where the breakers burst in foam. The prevailing winds here are northwest and southwest. To the southwest, the next land is Shetland, over two hundred miles away. To the northwest, it’s the Arctic. When the northwesterly gales drive the waves onto the rocks, the whole island seems to shudder.

I’ve got a photo of waves breaking at a harbor entrance on Utsira as the desktop on my computer at work. It’s just the kind of grim, sea-lashed beauty that speaks to my blood.

I’ve got to visit there someday.

Mel low

Everybody’s talking about Mel Gibson, so I’ll say something too.

I think there’s much to agree with in this post on the Libertas site. Gibson’s credentials as a conservative are actually kind of mushy. We’ve loved him, first of all because of Braveheart, one of the few recent movies that men who aspire to heroism can really embrace. Then came The Passion of the Christ, which we almost had to defend just because of the nature of the attacks on it (a not-very-defensible tactic).

I liked, but didn’t love, The Passion. It was a far more Catholic movie than most Protestants realized, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad. I don’t object to Catholics making Catholic movies. In the realm of literature, I’ve learned to enjoy several Catholic novelists very much—far more than a lot of Protestant authors, many of whom are too liberal or insufficiently skilled to please me.

In contrast to many of Gibson’s defenders, even Jewish ones, I thought I saw a hint of anti-Semitism in The Passion. I thought the priests in the movie were portrayed as Jewish caricatures. I never mentioned it at the time, because the whole subject is so thorny (which makes me a coward). I don’t agree with the current orthodoxy that says that the Jewish leaders had nothing at all to do with the crucifixion. The gospels clearly state that they did. The priests wanted to be rid of Jesus, and they manipulated Pontius Pilate, through threats of unrest, to have Him put to death.

But they did it for a reason, as the Gospel of John (11:48) makes clear. They considered Jesus a political threat, not just to themselves but to the commonwealth. They feared an uprising and Roman reprisals. Gibson could have emphasized this aspect and made his priests more sympathetic, without selling out to the “blame the Romans” revisionists.

If Gibson’s career is over, it frankly serves him right. But if Braveheart and (even) The Passion get tarnished because of him, our loss will be great.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture