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.

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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)

Time Well Wasted

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

There’s nothing quite like the flustered culmination of another school year to give a student (and probably their parents!) both the thrilling and frightening sensations from the passing of time. All good things must come to an end, but it’s especially tragic when that good thing was service & studying abroad in the Dominican Republic. On the other hand, when I lift my eyes to the future, I feel like my gleeful 10-year-old self trying to sit still and be patient the minutes before a birthday party– a nearly impossible feat when there is such an exceptional summer beckoning on the sunny horizon. How wonderful it is to have so many things to look forward to! Playing with this theme of time, last night I quickly jotted down some good habits of time “well wasted” that I’ve collected over the years and especially this past semester. They’re the sort of things that I usually have to push myself to do but that I have never regretted. At it’s core, growing up is mastering, through trial and error, the art of spending this precious currency, our funny gift called time.

The note-to-self:

  1. Give more hand-made presents: I can trace back my fondness for giving crafty gifts to watching my Grandma Noesen lovingly sew quilts for my newborn cousins as a little girl. Ever since, I have gradually taught myself to sew, crochet, knit, make jewelry, cards, and create various other items that are ideal for gift-giving occasions. Although the pieces usually emerge embarrassingly divergent from the original concept (still waiting for practice to make perfect), hand-made gifts represent beauty, utility, and a prized investment of time. It seems a little childish to spend hours upon hours making something that I could easily purchase, but I’ve decided that it’s a piece of childhood I want to hold onto. Those grandmotherly skills also hold their own across cultures, as my little sister in the campo and I are currently in the midst of weaving friendship bracelets for each other. 🙂
  2. Carve out time to read poetry: I can’t quite put my finger on the time when I first discovered the way in which words can share an experience through poetry, but I have been drawn in by  time and time again ever since. Even when I try to become swept away with the more comfortable tangibles of the world of business, my little poetry books seem to tap at my shoulder until, yet again, I fall in love with a vivacious poem. I have even acquired the pleasing habit of rising early some blessed mornings to read a few poems aside a steamy coffee. If that is something you have never tried, you absolutely must give it a shot tomorrow morning.
  3. Say yes to late nights turning into early mornings: “You can sleep when you’re dead” has become the guiding star to how much time I am willing to invest in my relationships. You never, ever lose when you invest hours in important conversations (or silly adventures), as late nights often lend themselves to, with another human being. As much as I love to read stories, I love being a part of one infinitely better.
  4. Embrace the dirt: Take off your shoes. I recently had a funny dinnertime chat with a friend bemoaning the fact that we can never seem to keep our feet clean in this country– but afterwards I realized that I’m really a fan of this deep down. It means I have been places, done tangible things and they left their little marks on me.  While I don’t mean to encourage actually embracing the dirt, this point simply is a reminder to revert back to that carefree, messy childish mindset that allows us to revel in the little things. So, go on weekly bike rides to get ice cream with the little kiddos in your life. Life is too important not to spend time with your family. Life is way too beautiful not to adventure into nature and breath in the fresh air. And, life is way too short not to buy that dripping ice cream cone and stimulate the local economy through your devoted patronage.
  5. Keep in touch with old friends: Lord knows that we’re all busy and stressed, but I know that I am always filled with gratitude when I receive a surprise “hey just checking in” kinda message. It’s caring enough to actively care for people that sets the great apart from the rest. Plus, it always feels fulfilling to make someone’s day.
  6. Acquire art and spend more afternoons in museums: As I graduated from the various embarrassing fads and fashions of my girlhood (if you want a chuckle: gauchos, aero shirt, and pigtail buns was the uniform) I have thankfully learned to refine and edify my tastes. I recently read a marvelous passage about such from The Economist’s View of the World, “Economists of the past thought it was part of their task to remind their readers that there are high and low pleasures, that many of the high ones require reason and the sometimes-painful acquisition of knowledge, that we aspire to tastes better than our current ones, and that such aspirations are sometimes hindered by profit-seeking businesses that cater to vices and over-emphasize the importance of what money can buy.” In other terms, it is our duty as consumers to signal the market to produce these “elevating” goods. Surrounding yourself with beauty reminds you to make something beautiful of yourself and your life– which is a very, very good thing.
  7. Eat and converse slowly: Here in La República Dominicana, I have really embraced the more relaxed, people-focused culture and my friends and I are fond of taking our sweet time when we go out to eat. This includes pre-cena walks, then drinks, appetizers, the main course, more drinks, and plenty of rich conversation. There’s always something to celebrate with each other– it’s just our job to seek it out 🙂
  8. Start and end each day with a prayer: I’ve been on and off with this one over the years, but I’ve recently resolved to get better. And that resolution began with a little story: One fine evening on a mall bench in Santiago, an old man with a baguette in one hand and bag of groceries in the other eased himself down next to my girlfriends and I.  We instantly struck up a lively conversation with this funny character. Several pleasantries, travel tips, and Shakespearean soliloquies later— he had been a professor for many years— our sentences began to drift upwards towards the divine, perhaps because it was Semana Santa. This old teacher leaned in towards us and confidently spoke of his unending trust in Him. He confided in us that he recited Psalm 23 each morning. Sometimes all we need is a little nudge in the right direction, and I have taken to reciting Salmo 23 each morning, simultaneously thanking the Almighty while practicing my Spanish pronunciation. Strangers have the funniest ways of teaching us what we need to know— which brings me to my next point…
  9. Always talk to strangers: There is not a single habit that has changed my life more– be open, be open, be open. Whether in the check-out line, on a train, or enjoying an neighborhood stroll, I have never been disappointed every time that I’ve surpassed my nervousness (or pure unawareness) in order to open myself up to a new face and conversation. In fact, that is how the majority of my best friends came to be. “How are you today?” and an engaging grin works wonders on us human beings, without exception.

P.S. The cover photo of this post is the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. If the trade-winds ever blow you to Minnesota during the 4 months that it’s not buried in snow, spend a lazy Sunday roaming around their paths. It’s good for the soul. 😉

~A Sunday Well Spent~

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly”

-G.K. Chesterton

As my fondness for writing has resolutely forged itself into an enthusiastic, habitual coping mechanism, so I find myself at the keyboard this hour – while visions of accounting dance through my head. First, I must admit that I have begun no less than three new posts this week, but unfortunately Time has not been so kind as to grant me her refuge. In plain, collegiate vernacular: I don’t want to sound like an idiot by posting incomplete thoughts. Hopefully you can bear with me, come to appreciate my foresight, and exercise patience – as I have no doubt that you are in full command of such a refined quality. Luckily, this post right here was somewhat of an early Christmas miracle as it was nearly written for me. I heard the seeds of it today in a most cheering sermon. Three main insights I would like to share tonight:

1. You have a great work to prepare for right here, right now, that will make the world very proud of you. As you labor toward that finis, find the present beauty and fulfillment in a hard day of work done well.

2. As you go about this work, remember you have been given another layer of responsibility: being an occasion of joy for others. See every interruption as an invitation.

3. Having said that, you’re not Jesus (thank goodness). Always be humble enough to know that you cannot do it all, and everything will still be alright.

n.b. ALWAYS say yes to funny Christmas card photo-shoots with friends. And teddy bears.

Here’s to the things more important than sleep!

You’ll Be In My Heart

There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

-Winston Churchill

Early yesterday morning, we had to kiss the Mississippi ground goodbye and embark on our 14-hr road trip back to good old Omaha.  I’d been dreading my return to the real world – throngs of emails, midterm grades, tedious assignments, the general organization required for living –  but I wakened today in my own bed with this prevailing sense of peace.  Instead of hurriedly checking my phone, I silently gazed out my window at early Autumn’s display of green and gold. There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

The pleasant aftermath of my service trip has reminded me of three important lessons:

1. Don’t worry about tomorrow.

It’s actually kind of embarrassing to think about how many times we have heard this, and still we continue to fritter away our time-allotment worrying and planning and stressing and talking about stressing and complaining about worrying… It takes a dramatic change of routine to break out of that vicious cycle. I attribute this newfound sense of peace in the present to the leaving behind of our cellphones for the entire week during our service trip. Hopefully you’ve heard it before, but just in case I will emphasize it again – life is much fuller when we don’t attempt to fill it with meaningless distractions. That week we did something different and uncomfortable, because we trusted that it would toughen us up for the better. We were reckless youth, but we were reckless with our kindness, openness, and joy, gambling that our time would be well spent in the service of others. We rebelled against the norm by staying up into the early hours of the morning – reflecting on our service, playing games, and baking cakes. We didn’t worry about what the next day had in store, because we knew we had more than enough in front of us, right then and there.

2. Reading will shape you into a more empathetic, understanding, and insightful being.

Oh, how I wish I could somehow fully convince the sweet kiddos that I tutored and hung out with this past week to take that truth to heart. As time goes on, I’ve witnessed more and more the incredibly forceful effect that good (also bad) books have on lives. I mean, how great is it that you can get an insight into someone’s head and have a shared experience, without ever having met them? Whether we like it or not, new understandings impact us. Literature give us a clue to the thought well thought, the word well said, and the deed well done. It is then up to us to make those noble thoughts, words, and actions our own; we must edify our lives into heroic poetry. I wish I could tell the kids that spending a summer day reading in a tree, and then consequently not being able to help but go out and hunt for the excitement you just got a glimpse of, is ten times more thrilling at the end of the day than curbing boredom by watching show after show on TV or the computer. Everything in moderation, of course, but I noticed a severe lack of enthusiasm for reading amongst the teachers and students, which I would dearly like to remedy. My suggestion? Read a good book. Think about that book, then talk about that book, then write about that book. I promise, you won’t be able to stop, and your life will be all the better for it.

3. Humble yourself.

There is an unparalleled power and beauty in the rawness of the human soul.

We nine of the “Calhoun Clique” have something real neat. We left our phones and our façades at home. We have a shared week-long experience that no one else will ever be able to replicate or to understand. And I tell myself, hold onto that feeling. But the truth is, I’ve felt like this before, and it put down roots. This past week gave birth to a peace that significantly deepened and heartened the stately tree of serenity that was already alive in my soul. It brought a renewed clarity to my life, improving upon the particular perspectives I had previously held and also forging new ones. Teaching ourselves to search out the beauty in the people and places we run across is a lifelong task, but I do know that we all grew by leaps and bounds in that area during this past week. I look back and think, how did I not know the beauty in the innocence and simplicity of waking up next to my new pals each new day? It is in the gift of a sleepy “good morning” to the occupant of the neighboring air mattress, while handing them that much-needed cup of black coffee. How did I not know the beauty in the wildly distracted student who could never sit still? It is in the gift of her endearing trust in me, as I later learn she is a foster child, yearning for care and comfort. How did I not know the beauty in nine wearied voices singing in unison on the last leg of our trip, just so that we may give each other one last precious, enduring memory? It is in the gift of the relationships that only open, exposed human souls can give one another. We left our comfort-zone to become humbled by each other, and in return we found uplifting peace.

The task now before us is to become a channel of peace for others.