“For We Can Only Wonder”

“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” –Denise Levertov

Over the years, I’ve heard various private and public voices argue that our culture–the millennial generation in particular–suffers from a need for instant gratification, constant entertainment, and a steady dose of thrills (see here and here and talk to your parents). There is clearly some truth to this, but perhaps there is something more. This hunger may be the blessed antidote for something that frightens me much more: numb minds, lukewarm hearts and the general stagnation brought about by a sleepless society (in almost all senses of the word).

It reveals some important information about ourselves, that we were made to be fully alive every single moment with arms stretched open to receive both the palm branches and lashes of life.

But how do we reconcile this taste for drama with the slushy grey snow and monotonous lectures that surround us most days? I’ve found an answer in the idea embodied by the word open— having open eyes and open ears. Although this will be published later, I’m presently typing this reflection on my personal magical rectangle, as I literally soar through the clouds themselves with a group of friends and many strangers. The experience of flying is almost too easy— only the most self-absorbed minds are not open enough to grasp the thrill and wonder in such an experience.  

Take my pending trip to the grocery store. I will soon drive my warm, fast car to a massive complex (my beloved Trader Joe’s), that is owned and operated by mysterious, unseen faces. There, I will play the fun game of stretching my college budget through bright aisles of exotic bananas, organic and fresh heads of lettuce, and past perfectly-proportioned boxes of Coconut Pancake Mix. Perhaps I will even collect a jasmine candle from Indonesia or a Dutch pink tulip plant— of which I am still always surprised to wake up and find this vividly living thing on my window sill!

And I haven’t even mentioned the glory in every detail of human friendship… I recently enjoyed dim sum with a beautiful old friend, whose fantastical entrance into my life was a generous compliment about my (infrequently) curled hair while we waited in line for lunch. What if I had run out of time to curl my hair that day! What if I had never attended that event, or that party, or made an offhand comment about that mediocre book! Somehow, these beautifully unfolding stories are ever more evident in the presence of this stunning peach sunset, and this momentous music, and the lingering memory of love letters that make up my environment. That is the function of beauty in art forms: the opening of the eyes and ears. They gently shake us awake to see the unfolding stories of which we play a part. Only with open eyes can I fully affirm the truth written by my old friend C.S. Lewis,

“But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work…”

So, hold on to that hunger for excitement, the urge to explore with reckless abandon, and the ache for a good story. It’s making you more childlike.


Perhaps this fascination with the daily details makes me sound like someone in love. Truth is, I am. The joy in being open lies in the fact that it is is a form of the vulnerability known by the lover’s heart. Peter Kreeft has explained it far better than I in this essay:

“We can see the same principle at work on every level: gravity and electromagnetism on the inorganic level; a plant’s attraction to the sun and to water and nutrients in the soil on the plant level; instinct on the animal level; and love on the human level. And within the human sphere there is also a hierarchy beginning with the sexual desire (eros) and affection (storge) that we share with the animals up to the friendship (philia) and charity (agape) that we share with the angels. The universe is a hierarchy of love. This is not a myth. This is the splendid and glorious truth. Look! How can you miss it? It’s all around us…

When Jesus threw open his arms on the cross, he said, in effect: ‘See? That’s how much I love you.’ “

Advertisements

Running Without Arriving

“If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

The weather gods have been good to little Omaha, Nebraska this week. We began with classes called off for two “ice-days” in a row and have closed up the weekend with three days that reached the high 40s. Spring broke the rules to speak to our sun-deprived faces. Do you ever sit back and wonder at the weather? Truly miraculous, I tell you.

So, there I was on my jog today, carried away in the game where I imagine where each person is going, and what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. Perhaps you’ve played it before as well. The sun began to set, and my exuberant thoughts turned to where I was inevitably going, formulating a vague gameplan for the evening. I didn’t get very far though, because as I explored the mental catalogue of potential delightful activities, I began to wonder at why I enjoy my hobbies so much. (And now you know why I’m so absentminded 90% of the time.)

What is it about running? What is it about writing? Why music? Why painting? Why reading?

Five strides later, the answer came to me as clear as day: at the end of it all, I never truly arrive anywhere. Whenever I lose myself in my hobbies (a welcome loss indeed), there is a lingering sense of “almost, but not yet.” That’s precisely why I always reach for more– one more beautiful jog, one more enlightening book. Prolonging the runner’s high is like begging that gloriously orange sun not to set, trying to escape the inevitable swallowing-up.  “For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinth. 7:31). All races, essays, songs, artworks, books, hours, years, and even lifetimes must come to an end.

Ernest Hemingway has said it thus: “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”

That is how I found myself bumping into yet another paradox of our humanity. Though I cannot (yet?) enjoy the perfect jog or write the perfect essay (and goodness knows every five-year-old is closer to the perfect painting than I am), the fire inside still urges me to pursue these things.  My hobbies cannot teach me perfection, but that can teach me about beauty and goodness. The higher builds upon the lower. As nearly always, St. John Paul II fulfills my reflection by guiding me to the things I knew that I was missing, but couldn’t see clearly enough to name:

“Saint Bonaventure, who in introducing his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum invites the reader to recognize the inadequacy of ‘reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God‘ ” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

In other words, I’m not running for nothing. I’m doing it so I can be a better gift.

Marketing as the Wrist of the Invisible Hand

In the past, I’ve told a handful of key stories to explain why I’ve complemented my main major of economics with marketing. This covers things from refining the skill of persuasive communication, learning to see from other perspectives, and understanding the incentives that drive economic exchanges. Truth is, it simply just happened. I fell in love with both marketing and economics courses– all thanks to the remarkable professors teaching them. I simply was obedient to the best advice I’ve ever heard: follow where the good people go.

It might be because the brains of economics majors are finely tuned to pick up on economic insights everywhere, or it might merely be narrative bias, but a recent class assignment has led me to appreciate yet another aspect of the relationship between marketing and economics.

In Econ 101, you may have learned that markets coordinate self-interested exchanges for the good of society, generally solving the economic problem of allocating scarce resources to their highest valued use. This is often referred to as the phenomena of the “invisible hand,” as explained by Adam Smith (link if you’re interested in remedying my poor simplification.) I say that marketing is the wrist of this invisible hand, as it directs the flow of information which usually provides the basis by which individuals and firms decide which things to exchange, how to price them, and where to next innovate.

In “Marketing’s Contributions to Society,” Wilkie and Moore summarize that:

“In a market-based system, consumers’ response to marketers’ offerings drive supply allocations and prices. Depending on society’s decisions on public versus private ownership, the aggregate marketing system plays a greater or lesser role in allocating national resources” (205).

In a sense, marketers act as the ambassadors between the individual and the firm. Goods and services will be provided as are communicated by the individual and interpreted by the marketer. The health of this essential relationship will determine the overall success of the economy, as if it were guided toward prosperity by a benevolent invisible hand. For me, the practical takeaway is this: if I don’t like how the “invisible hand” is functioning, maybe it’s time to assess the signals I give to marketing departments through my consumption choices.

In my studies, a sort of chicken-and-egg situation has been presented when it comes to determining whether marketing forms culture or whether culture forms marketing. Or even, if the individual has wants that marketers address or if marketers create those wants in the individual. This is nonsense. In my four years of courses and two years of work as the Director of Marketing for a local publisher, it is clear to me that marketing responds to signals from the consumer. The goal is to create value for the consumer; entrepreneurs introducing new products or services are still connecting it to some inherent desire on the part of the potential buyers. Thus, the consumption decisions that you and I engage in (or not) are what determine the commercials we see, billboards we drive by, and the products that are created. In our marketplace (not so much in government), individuals always have the power to say no.

The higher builds upon the lower, but the two must not be confused. The fulfillment of marketing’s promises, which is concrete and true in a sense, is obviously limited to the visible material world. While my wonderful little laptop has greatly augmented my search for knowledge and joy (hello Pinterest home decor ideas), it’s consequently my daily task to remember that I do not need it. Arthur Brooks explains this point well in Abundance Without Attachment. Finally, I’ve shared this before but it merits frequent repetition:

“It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than being”…It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (Centesimus Annus, John Paul II).

Only a Stronger Love

There are three poems completely committed to my memory.

The first was academically imposed upon our grumbling class of Catholic middle schoolers, as we were not yet experienced enough to grasp the worth of an inner poetry treasure chest. I’m transported back to that tiny classroom every time the declaration, “Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare,” passes my lips. The second, “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, made its entrance into my life as required reading, but I surprised myself by wishing I could utter it while under the stars one night. A sucker for poetic moments, I worked to memorize the short piece and it has not left since (though nature’s beauty is hard to come by these days… oh frozen tundra of Omaha).

I met this final poem through a friend at Creighton (those eloquent Jesuits!), and it was pure love that led me to commit it to memory. It is a prayer written by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. As my activities become increasingly concrete and materially productive, the wisdom that was instilled as a child has crystallized as well. Love is power, literally. It is the sole force that completely flips our world up-side down (or right-side up as Chesterton would say) as that which was once counted as a cost becomes a benefit. Some folksy prophets (who I happen to know are spectacular in concert) once sang it like this: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”

I’m not very wise, but the fact is, I don’t want my eulogy to be about how much I loved buying dresses or how much I loved to lay in bed and read all day. Those are purposely lighthearted examples, but in the face of inner darkness the truth glows even brighter: only a stronger love, a passion more fierce, can pull me from the things that I love out of proportion. We do not empty ourselves of attachments to remain empty, but to make room for the better wine. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, who perhaps said it best, the only true cure for an alcoholic is to fall in love with the beauty of a sober saint, and the way to conquer lust is to behold the bloody love of Christ crucified. There is high truth in that.

Entering the fresh year of 2017, renewing our conviction to shake off bad habits, perhaps the best way to go about it is by allowing ourselves to fall recklessly in love with something more good, more true, and more beautiful. The good life is not the boring life. And so we begin searching, and something tells me that none of us will have to go too far.

cs-lewis-quote-we-are-far-too-easily-pleased.jpg

On Friends: Clive Staples vs. Ernest

“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” – C.S.Lewis

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates.” – Ernest Hemingway


The above lines reveal tension. Though incomplete, it is palpable enough to bear fruit upon contemplation. For the first author, friendship (particularly that of Christian friends) is an experience worthy of rhetorical awe and thanksgiving. The other argues that even if community can temporarily alleviate our islandhood, the best writer will refuse such pleasure for whole-hearted devotion to his work. There no difference in the object of reflection, and hardly one of context as both are prolific writers, so the true divide must come from the interior orientation of each. The second author sees himself and his work, while the first is most concerned with sharing a marvel. There is a difference of focus.

The question then remains: What is the best thing to focus on? The clearest way to answer this giant question is to put it into perspective– universal and inescapable perspective.  The answer arises from another question, the one that I firmly believe we will hear in the stillness of our last day: How much did you love? If loving is primarily accomplished through one’s writing and work, then very good! However, it is only as good as it is true. Every moment we get closer to the day when we can no longer comfortably deceive ourselves about how efficiently the scarcest resource has been spent.

Lewis has chosen the better part.

This is quite heavy, but I like to remind myself of this very, very often because I’m a natural Hemingway getting caught up in my books, and work, and solitude, and coffee, and melancholy stormy nights. But fortunately, with good friends and twinkly-eyed writers like Lewis, I usually come out on the other side, laughing at myself.

It is good to be small

It is good to be small,
Sparrow declares in his morning hymn;

Dancing lightly on pink-blossomed twig.

It is good to be small,
Baby giggles as his mama

Scoops applesauce into his open mouth.

It is good to be small,
Priest teaches his sheep;

Pointing to the Father’s Love Crucified.

“It is good to be small,”
Wandering woman speaks in her heart,

As 99% of those papers loose
Their meaning
When exposed to
angelic heights.

Our Country ‘Tis of Thee

I have this (crazy) habit of sprinting the last leg of my morning run, which happens to be right in front of Omaha’s Central High. Over time, I’ve forged a sometimes-spoken bond with the certain cluster of students who typically gather around the sidewalk before the first bell rights.  They cheer, wave, and offer high-fives; I wink, offer a big smile, and sometimes flex my arms to make them laugh. There are no words to fully explain how this little ritual fills my heart, and I can only hope that they start their day off with a chuckle as their “Creighton lady who lives across the street” ungracefully and sweatily scampers by.

Friday morning, however, I reached the Dodge hill to find that the my high school friends had staged a full-fledged Trump protest in front of their school. There are just two things I’d like to say on the matter:

  1. To the little girl who was holding the “WE ARE ALL VALID” sign: Yes, yes you absolutely are “valid.” It breaks my heart that there are many legitimate reasons that many groups of people feel afraid, angry, and dismayed right now, and I absolutely believe that my success on this earth will be measured by how well I respect, protect, and love you. Each of us would do well to remember how undeservedly blessed we are just to be here. And lastly… I also remember how high school feels. So, in case you forgot a few important things when you woke up this morning, know that you are beautiful and made for great things. Go live out your beauty in this world– we desperately need it 🙂
  2. To the group of boys with the graffitied, X-ed out Trump sign: I understand and applaud the desire to protect yourself and your loved ones, but my short 21 years on this earth have convinced me that that’s not the answer. We don’t have to respect the person, but we do need to respect the office. Brave men will practice what they preach, and God knows we need more brave men.

To all who are adults–which includes you, college freshman– remember who each other is. Remember that Donald Trump is someone’s son, and Hillary Clinton is someone’s daughter. Remember that Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, and those who abstained from voting are all the little kid of some mom and dad out (or up) there.

But above all, remember your deepest identity:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

 

J.S. Mill on Conversation

Truth gains even more by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think… However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. (pgs. 40-41)

Amongst leaning towers of pizza boxes and well-marked notebooks, our reading group discussed John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty this past Tuesday evening. While there are a million plus one different ways to dissect, take up, and apply this work to the present, and swelling ranks of those who have taken up the task, I’d like to select a single gem to reflect upon. That rock is Mill’s perspective on discourse, specifically his idea that it is vitally necessary that we expose ourselves to diverse viewpoints and allow vigorous conversation– especially when it comes to our near and dear “higher things.”

While many would happily claim the label “tolerant,” it seems that fewer would invite a someone from very different religion, or a different political party (God forbid), over for dinner and then proceed to have a genuine discussion about religion and/or politics.

But I think this is exactly what needs to happen.

It is easy (not to mention comical) to bash Washington for polarizing our country, and though I’d admit that they have been doing nothing to help, it is our government after all. More importantly, it is our state, our city, our neighborhood, and our family. Mill has something to say about the stakes:

But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.

We (myself always included) shrink back from or “don’t have time for” (that favorite phrase of the modern American), engaging with those who come from different walks of life than us. In fact, I would argue that we currently suffer from a gross misunderstanding of the virtue of diversity. The only reason I can think of that diversity is currently measured by something as merely visual and uncontrollable such skin color, sex, or nationality is that these external facts can often coincide with true diversity. That is, the precious difference of perspective that we each hold as steward given a singular set of gifts, experiences, talents, and time.

The energetic beauty of diversity is in the unique irreproducibility of our unfolding stories. Believe me–this beauty, as all beauty, is mightily powerful. Call to mind those people who have changed your life for the better. There is no doubt that your souls crossed paths while traveling very different paths, but their healthy influence upon you was built conversation by conversation and shared experience by shared experience. I’d be willing to bet that over time, each of you wore down the other’s rough edges and perhaps even refined one another. What a treasure to have another mind for consultation in life’s episodes. What a strength to have another body to shoulder life’s burdens. What a joy to have another heart to encourage and rouse your feet toward new adventures!

I wonder what would happen if we looked at every fresh conversation this way. As my favorite author reminds, we bump elbows and share study spaces with beings who have been given the power to influence us for the better. Or even, as Fr. Greg Boyle movingly reminded us on Tuesday night, to “return us to ourselves.” This is the great possibility, and stagnant isolation is the the great enemy.

All I know is that I hope to be the kind of woman who greets her fellow sojourners like the potential friends that they are, always in the memory that my mouth, eyes, and ears are only outward symbols of the heart I carry within.

Parting quote:

“He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

The GRE Manifesto

A quality that I’ve always admired is purposefulness. Time is something we can never get back (and who knows how much we even have left!), so there’s a real power in being able to confidently answer the question, “Why am I doing this?”

The great majority of my next few days will be consumed with studying for the GRE. (Joy of joys!) I’ve been joking to a few friends that I’ll be cafe-hopping through Omaha over my Fall Break. Except I’m not joking… And I may even hit up Council Bluffs if I’m feeling especially adventurous one day. But though I “just kinda know” this is something I need to do, I looked in the mirror this morning and understood that I needed to articulate my purpose more clearly. My lovely journal began to catch the words, but then I realized that was not nearly honest or humble enough. This was also something that I wanted to own up to publicly.

Therefore, let it be asked, “Why am I doing this”?

Starting with the least important reason, I’m doing this for myself. I’m doing this for the part of Clara that wants to know she can persistently pour herself out into a goal and reap the fruits of her hard labor. Theres’s definitely a dose of the stuff those cheesy motivational quotes are made of running through my veins. It’s invigorating, actually.

Secondly, I’m doing it for my friends, at home and abroad. The amount of support and encouragement I’ve received from my dear friends lately has taken my breath away. If you’re reading this, please know that I cherish those hugs and kind words when the going gets tough. I cannot wait to be there for you when you need the same strength! On a deeper level, I’m doing it for my friends abroad– especially holding in mind my little brothers and sisters whom I taught during Encuentro. I know there are multitudes who do not have as many doors open as I do; I’ve danced bachata with them and been humbled to live amongst them. That is why I embrace whatever small things I’ll have to give up these next few days. What an honor to be in these shoes!  May I never forget the joyful charge: to whom much is given, much is expected.

Thirdly, I’m doing this for my family, my rock. There’s something sublime in knowing you are prayed for. There’s something empowering in knowing you are loved no matter what. (There’s also something really appealing about not living on your couch next year, mom and dad!)

And finally, I’m doing it for Him. I’m doing it because it was His Hands that set me in this place, and His Love that placed these burning desires within my heart. We each have a mission, or as I like to think of it, a heavenly, beautiful story that He writes through us as we journey home. So, even should this next chapter not quite work out according to my plans, I know I’m not the one who knows best (thank goodness!) and I truly believe that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding.

It’s pretty simple, really, this is just me answering Your call with “yes.”

 

(Confession: I had to google “manifesto” before publishing this to make sure using the word wouldn’t make me a comrade…).

Sursum Corda

Feet bounce over cloud-grey concrete;

The morning ritual has begun.

Giving them the rhythm of my habitual soundtrack,

I’m lulled into my tiny, selfish circles.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble…

I raise my eyes from running feet to running river,

To panting breeze, to energetic sun, to intrepid shores.

They say God wrote us two love-letters:

The Bible and nature.

Sursum corda.

In a surprise leap, the Missouri River banks transform before my eyes

Into the raging Cliffs of Mohr, then the lay skirts of the Potomac,

And finally, the lapping shores of Cotton Lake.

Oh God, who makes the mountains melt…

Come wrestle us and win.

Surely the Beckoner of the breezes mingles sands and stones into one;

Nature’s natural innocence is more easily redeemed than ours.

But wait! Friend, look at me again with your ocean eyes.

I think He wrote three.