Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sketchbook Memories: Octavius' New Hobby


The late afternoon sun hit the postcard and illuminate the idyllic lake-and-tree picture of the upper peninsula. Marty sighed. On the last day of school, Marty and Will decided to penpal over the summer while he was away in Michigan. They promised to write each other every week, even if nothing exciting happened. So far, Marty had written seven postcards to receive nothing in return. Should he continue to send words that seemed to fall on the deaf ears of his friend?

Marty sighed again. A promise was a promise, even if his friend didn't write back. He placed the postcard in the mailbox, flipped up the flag, and turned to walk back down the gravel lane. Even if he was not Will's best friend, Will was Marty's closest friend in California.

The move had not been easy. Marty didn't care for his new step-father or the fact that he had to move from one side of the country to the other right before starting middle school. True, living next to the ocean was not a bad perk, but it was all so different. Marty felt lonely more often than not, and he missed being surrounded by his cousins. Meeting Will gave him a break from the nagging desire to hitch-hike across the country and leave behind his new life in California. Will taught him how to surf and skateboard, as well as where to find the best ice cream on the West Coast. If California didn't always feel like summer, Marty would miss spending lazy sunny days exploring with his new friend. But Michigan had cousins, sailboats, and biking through the woods until the sun set or the mosquitos sucked dry your last drop of blood.

Maybe it was silly to be angry or disappointed. Marty was having fun in Michigan, and he was glad to share his memories with his new friend. If he wrote enough enticing letters, maybe Will would even come visit for part of next summer.

Still, though. Seven letters. Marty knew the post office might lose one or two here and there, but seven consistently? That would be cause for rioting in the streets and an overhaul of the whole mail system. No... maybe Will just lost track of time in the land of sun and beaches. Every day starts to feel disorienting-ly the same, and seven weeks could feel like two days.

- - -

Nothing. Not a thing. 

Junk mail, sure. There was always junk mail and those credit card offers that fueled his parents' fire pit. But no letters. Not from Michigan, not from nowhere. 

At first, Will would check the mail with excitement. Now, it was just a ritual on his way to the beach. Will was sure that Marty would have been different than other want-to-be penpals. Shoot, they both read letter correspondences of famous dead people and joked about their own letters being published someday. 

Unfortunately, you can't publish nothing. And that was the extent of Will's correspondence with Marty. True, he wrote a couple of letters at the beginning. But it was difficult to keep it up with no returned discourse. You can't keep firing ideas out into the void like that. His last letter was four weeks ago. Four pages. Filled with J's in different script. If Marty wasn't reading his letters, at least he could practice his handwriting skills. Now, Will could state proudly, without refute, the ability to reproduce a perfect J in 237 different scripts. How about that for fame? 

Of course, he would forgive Marty of the many reasons or excuses given for not writing. Life happens. But after getting that all sorted out, he might torture his friend for a little while with script quizzes or another viewing of "Helvetica" before letting on that everything was okay. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sketchbook Memories: Fishy Drifters


Sigmond was at a complete loss at their surprise. He had been telling them of his plans for months. Even still, the Accounting Firm of Oceanic Investments' manager doubted Sigmond's bravado at leaving, not only his very secure job, but also his very safe home at the coral beds. Why in the world would he not settle down to raise a few hundred baby seahorses of his own? What could he find out there that wasn't offered by the Firm?

Still, the lure of the ocean pulled him like a mid-August current and he knew his path would be decidedly different than the thousands of extended family making up the Firm. Barely looking back, he trudged his suitcase to the far, far coral and waited. 7:03 his pocket watch told him. The taxi should be arriving soon.

Sigmond chuckled to himself as he remembered the puckered look of their faces. He, Sigmond Bartholomew XXIII of Investments Group 437, leaving in search of more fish and the sea. Who could have guessed it? Should his travels go well, perhaps he would consider making good on a friend's invitation to visit the surface. What would they think of him then?

He checked his watch again. Where was that blasted taxi? The watch read 7:03. Worthless thing, this pocket watch. With the salt water corroding the gears year after year, it was a surprise the watch held together at all. He kept it for the sentimentality. This pocket watch was a gift from his late father, and even though it never told the time, Sigmond liked having it near him. The round watch filled his pocket nicely and gave him something to do if he got one of his nervous spells.

Now, for instance. He practiced taking it out and putting it back into his pocket with the refined swish of his tail. Out, in, out. 7:03. In, out. There was comfort in knowing every important moment in his life happened at the same time, never a second too soon or too late.

A sound reverberated through the coral and Sigmond turned his head. Ah, the water taxi. Right on time. As the blurb, blurb of bubbles drew nearer, his heart quickened. This was it. Now was the start of his greatest adventure yet! With a flick of Sigmond's tail, the watch was back in his pocket and his luggage in tow. If only his father could see him now!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Great Parade of Sins

It happens every Sunday morning since I was brought back into communion.

I wake up early to get ready for the new day and the liturgy. As I prepare to say my pre-communion prayers, a weight of doubt settles on my chest. In Orthodoxy, communion is not simply a matter of remembrance, but through the prayers and mysteries of the service, the bread and wine becomes the actual body and blood of Christ. Communion is not to be taken lightly, as that bread and wine is a piece of the Son of God, the essence of all life and goodness, swallowed and consumed for the healing and salvation of my very own body and soul. Preparation - prayer, fasting, confession - is necessary to receive communion, lest I drink and eat judgement and death upon myself. Have I done enough to prepare for communion?

The answer is always no, and thus starts a Sunday morning phenomenon that I have come to call my Great Parade of Sins.

First, I see all the non-Lenten foods I may have eaten on Wednesday or Friday (days that are set aside for prayer and fasting by the Orthodox church). Then, all the mornings I was in a rush, or I slept too long, and didn't complete my morning prayers. Next come my fits of impatience, my stubbornness, my frustrations, my unkindness and slander for the people around me. All the ugly characteristics I have embodied in just the last week are marching back and forth in front of me. Heaven forbid my thoughts dredge up anything from my past! Of course by this point, I decide that I have not adequately prepared for communion, I am not worthy to partake of the body and blood of Christ. In years past, this is the point where I give up, do not say pre-communion prayers, and remove myself from communion entirely, hoping to schedule a confession and do a better job next week.

This, of course, is never the correct answer. When I have made this decision in the past, I realize my error halfway through the service as everything in me yearns for participation at the communion table. I have removed myself, now standing sad and mute at the back of the church. Why am I even here? I sometimes wonder, in moments of dark despair.

As a protestant converted to Orthodoxy, I hold a tension inside my heart. In regards to the communion table (and my personal salvation), this tension is between works and grace. My protestant upbringing balks at the idea of preparing for communion. Divine grace, it yells into my ear. Forgiveness through belief alone and not works.  Throughout the Gospel and the apostle Paul's letters to the early Christian churches, there is a tension in understanding God's movement toward us and our movement toward him. In protestant beliefs, this tension has been interpreted as an opposing binary between faith or works. On one side, there is only grace activated by our faith. God moves toward us, but only after we invite him to do so. In many circles, this invitation comes through a simple prayer consisting of several sentences. Taken to the extreme, the belief that God only moves toward us has lead to controversial (and some would argue, heretical) doctrine such as predestination, Calvinism, and the total depravity of the individual. The responsibility of grace and love is entirely in the hands of the Divine toward us lowly humans. Sadly, in circles holding these beliefs, there is very little grace left over to extend love to those around us.

The other side of the protestant binary is work based faith, or participation in religions that focus on good works as a means to salvation. Through our actions, we move toward God and the promise of paradise. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are lumped in with this description, though since converting I realize this is a labeling of the "other" by protestant doctrine rather than a belief held in the Church. My preparation for communion - prayer, fasting, and confession - can be seen as works (they are actions that I do or do not perform). The binary of my protestant upbringing whispers that completing these actions makes me worthy to participate in communion, while failing removes me. The tension between works and grace remains in my heart as I watch my weekly sins like a Sunday morning soap opera of guilt and shame.

No, I am not worthy to participate in communion.

A wise woman once challenged me on this thinking. "Who gives us the right to determine if we are worthy or unworthy to partake in communion?" Her words stay with me now, years after she confronted me. Rather than remove myself for fear of my own sins, I begin my prayers of preparation. The words strike at the chords of my heart, drawn taught with the works/grace tension. Like the leprous man who approached you, so heal my leprous and sick soul. Like the woman who touched your garment and was healed, so hear my prayers and heal me, though I be sinful and unworthy. Reduced to the simpliest meaning, each line breaths a simple request: Lord, have mercy on me.

I think on my week, the sins now parading around the living room and the kitchen, and feel the request deep in my heart: Lord, have mercy on me. As I struggle with knowing if I should take communion or not - if I have adequately checked all my boxes (I never have) - I focus on and repeat the words of the prayers: Lord, have mercy on me. When the time finally comes to receive the body and blood of Christ, to uproot my feet and move toward the chalice, I walk in the faith of God's grace and goodness. My great sin parade marches in front of me, now frantic and waving every arm and banner, shouting my unworthiness at a deafening screech. Their concerns are well placed: I walk like dry grass to the fire, a cold fear emanating from the black base of my heart, judgment and condemnation await me, the sinful and unrepentant. Still I approach, fixating on and crying out with every movement of my breath: Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me. 

A portion of the divine, a fragment of Christ himself, is spooned into my mouth. I chew and swallow. As the prayers promise, I partake of the fire, though I am dry grass. O wonder! I am refreshed and not burned, as the bush of long ago, which was in flames but not consumed. Thankful to the depths of my soul and heart, my parade takes its leave and I sit in the light that is God's grace toward his creation. This grace is real to me. I am not burned or destroyed, though I am unworthy to have God dwell in me. I have not adequately prepared for communion - I have not fully repented my sins - and still God enters under the roof of my soul. If my faith is works based, I deserve damnation, judgment, and death for my sins. But, through faith in God's goodness I approach, trusting in real grace, real love, and real forgiveness. I have cried, Lord have mercy, and for one week more, God has answered my heart prayer and drawn me closer.

Week after week passes. My sin parade still visits me on Sunday mornings, and still my heart cries out its prayer of desperation. Again, I partake of God and am not consumed, but left in awe of the mystery that is God's love toward creation. The tension in my heart is loosening, the divide between works and grace blurring into a different understanding. I am beginning to experience terms that were always too abstract before: faith, forgiveness, and grace. The requirements and standards put forward by my church intensify my belief. The standard is there and I am here, far below, looking up at what I am meant to be. Every week, I fear condemnation. Every week, I breath repentance. Every week, I approach the chalice with faith. And every week, I experience God's forgiveness and grace. I turn to a new week with thanksgiving and conviction. Perhaps this week, I will do a little better - I can love better, be more disciplined, and more earnestly remember paradise in all that I do - by the grace of God who gives me breath to whisper: Lord have mercy.

Monday, April 28, 2014

When Math Wins

Today, I did the unmentionable and betrayed the indolent adolescent in us all.

This day, April 28th, 2014, will go down as a day of victory for high school math teachers everywhere.

Today, I applied SOC-CAH-TAO to a real life situation.


I know, I know. How did this happen?! you wonder, incredulously. See, there was this ladder... and a loft bed... and the legs on the loft needed to be cut, but the distance cut from the ladder was unknown.

Trial and error is a dangerous method to employ when cutting real life wood with a real life saw. The wisdom of that proverb "cut once, measure twice" hangs heavy when the object modified is a $300 bed frame and the consequence determines whether or not your new studio apartment will work for the next two years.

When first considering the problem, I felt the faded and lurking memory of the Pythagoras Theorem rise to the front of my memory like oil slicked across the water of my mind. Right-angle triangles floating on pages of old math books, taunting me with squared a's and b's equaling c's matching pencil drawn triangles. I quickly pushed the theorem away in search of a different solution.

I turned to Google. How do I cut an Ikea loft bed and ladder? 


While the internet offered many parent opinions on whether the bed should be modified, it lacked concrete measurements, ratios, or equations to correctly make the cuts. Even with technology jumping in to dominate every area of my life, it appears I would still have to do my own thinking for my modification. So, remembering 10th grade math class and the quirky Mrs. Anderson, I now Google searched a refresher to SOC-CAH-TOA and a pattern for a printable protractor.

With a tape measure, pencil sketches, and my incredibly sad printable protractor, I am determining the length cut from the ladder of my loft bed given the decreased length in each of bed legs, not so unlike a test problem I worked out 15 years ago.

And, because I have to measure twice and cut once, I even have a method in place to check my work that involves a weight on a string and a leveler.

sigh

Math, today you win.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MaddAddam Book Review

After finishing this book, I read both the good and bad reviews to help sort out my own thinking on Margaret Atwood's conclusion to the Oryx and Crake trilogy. There is truth in the bad reviews. If I was expecting the deep and complicated world of Oryx and Crake or the Year of the Flood to continue in this novel, I would be disappointed. If I wanted to continue getting to know the previous main characters (Jimmy, Ren, Amanda or Toby), I would be sad how one dimensional or not at all present the characters have suddenly become. In MaddAddam, Atwood does not give us the conclusion we have been wanting. 

She gives us something better.

In the previous two books, Atwood shows the destruction of a world through two different viewpoints. In Oryx and Crake, we see the world inside the corporate compounds and are drawn close to the master of the apocalypse, Glenn/Crake, through the narrative of his childhood friend, Jimmy. In the Year of the Flood, the world is further explored outside the compounds, in the black market free-for-all known as the Pleeblands through a resistant movement known as God's Gardeners. As the story concludes in The Year of the Flood, the characters in two seemingly unrelated stories turn out to be very intertwined through their pasts and are joined up again in the present, post-apocalyptic world. As it turns out, even the dystopic world is a little too small for comfort. 

For most readers, myself included, the anticipation leading up to the release of MaddAddam is the question as to how these characters will deal with their sudden re-acquaintance as well as to continue living in the pre-virus world of the past. This expectation toward drama and conclusion is precisely what Atwood refuses to deliver in the third book of her trilogy. After I get over my own frustration at not receiving what I wanted/expected, I realize that Atwood's approach moves the story much further forward, and offers a stronger and fuller message than if she were to stick with the approach present in the previous books. This is why: 

1. The world the previous characters have known has ended. As much as I want to go back, as a reader, and continue exploring the corruption, greed and violence that led to the present collapse, it is pointless. I have already been back in that world twice. If this book seems to lack the intricate plot and complex characters of the previous two, is it perhaps because the day ins and outs of survival can be boring? 

2. The questions the characters (and the readers) are struggling to understand are unanswerable. Why did Crake kill Oryx? What were the motivations and reasons behind Crake's destruction of humankind? What happened to all the other characters that didn't survive? Why did they have to die? Are they still out there somewhere? To be given conclusion to these questions would not be honest to the present world the characters are struggling through. Crake is dead and unfortunately, he didn't write his motivations into a journal. Families with a missing loved one rarely receive conclusive news that their husband/wife/child is in fact dead. This is one of the reasons this dystopia is so believable. Just like us in everydaylife, the characters in MaddAddam have to deal with the frustratingly unanswerable and choose what to do moving forward (if they do, in fact, chose to move forward).

3. Finally, and perhaps the most important reason why Atwood's approach with this book and reader expectations is incredibly well crafted: this is not a story about Jimmy, Toby, Ren, Amanda or any of the other previous characters we have know and may or may not have loved. Everything we need to understand these characters has been given in the previous two books. Their stories are about the ending of the world that they knew and their luck (or unluck) at ending up in the present time of post-apocalypse. MaddAddam is about the future, about life after the dust settles, about the building of mythology and culture, and the adaptability of humankind and the strength to move forward even in the midst of extinction and tragedy. 

The more I think about what Atwood is doing in this novel, the more I love it. There is beauty in the simplicity. The exchanges between the survivors and the Crakers is hilarious and endearing. Atwood captures the irritating frustration adults sometimes feel when faced with the insatiable 'why' of a child piecing together their world. Her skill in first building a complicated world falling apart and then speculating how to see that world through the new eyes of a different culture is brilliant.

As others have mentioned, this is not a stand-alone book. You will need to read the previous two books to gain the backstory on the characters and the plot. I enjoyed this book and highly recommend the whole trilogy to anyone who likes dystopia or speculative fiction. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Silliness: Part 2 - The Build-up

The heartbreak, loneliness, disappointment and exploitation I felt in Scotland didn't sink in in any meaningful way. In the following years, I perfected the art of leaving and hatched farther fetched and more ridiculous dreams of traveling the world.

At 18, three months after coming home from Scotland, I landed on the Western Washington University campus my freshman year of college only to pack up and transfer to community college nine months later. In the first month of my freshman year, I tried to move out of the dorms and into an apartment with high school friends only to have the move vetoed by my parents. My college career continued to scatter as I attended one community college to transfer to another in Seattle, to finally land at Washington State University in Pullman to then transfer to WSU - Vancouver one year later. At the end of five years, I had attended a total of six higher education institutions and moved nine times, with the tenth move landing me back at my parents' house in Bremerton. 

My ideal career path was just as scattered as my home addresses. I graduated high school thinking I would pursue education, then switched to biochemistry and pre-pharmacy, only to finally graduate with an English degree and bucket loads of science electives. I wanted to be that teacher in the African villages, then the pharmacist doctor who would deliver drugs to poor countries, only to give it all up in a large dream to walk around the world volunteering and writing poetry to make a living (because, you know... volunteer work and art sell). My boyfriend and I called it "the Plan" and drew a line from one part of the world to the next. I would have been happy to pursue English teaching abroad with him, however he became more concerned building a professional life after college and I landed back home in Bremerton, trying to decide if I would volunteer with this organization or that, take this career path or that, and generally, hatching a plan to leave Bremerton as quickly as possible.

Rather than understand my desire to leave, I believed the scheme came from a love of the world, experiences and adventure. This belief was not unfounded or entirely incorrect, but there was something deeper there as well that I refused to address. Like the need to keep moving even while in exotic or new places. Or the inability to think further ahead in my plans than the landing of my feet in a new location. In each of my adventures, I left a very small margin of error with both my finances and my safety. If anything went wrong, I didn't have savings to do more than get me back to Bremerton.

The plans grew more and more radical. Six months working with street children and former victims of prostitution in Kathmandu. Dead-end job with Raytheon Polar Services in Antarctica for six months, live-aboard and sail the world in the six month off season, repeat. Nursing degree followed by career as traveling nurse indefinitely. On and on the dreams piled with some catch as to why I wasn't off living them or setting them in motion. Rather than invest in one dream or the other and focus, I would float until I couldn't anymore and frantically run toward the option easiest to execute. I remained in flux, either between the desire to leave or the return home when things didn't work out as I had planned. I was making a career of dead end jobs, a scattering of college classes leading nowhere, and the ability to leave at a moments notice.

After nearly two years of floating in Bremerton and around Seattle, moving another five times, and working a total of four temporary and semi-permanent jobs, I'd hatched the perfect escape plan. With $5,000, I was going to live in Mexico and Central America for at least 18 months. I would work on my Spanish skills, I told myself. I would decide if I wanted to work in Orthodox ministries or live in a monastery, I told myself. I would come back finally knowing if I wanted to go to graduate school and what to study. I convinced my friends and family this was not running away, that I had purpose and plan to this trip, and that I would do my best to include them all in my travels.

These were not lies as I fully believed the reasoning myself, but there was something deeper just under the surface of my good intentions. This something peeked through as I sorted and got rid of nearly all my possessions. The feeling of escape was tangible as I either waved goodbye or completely ignored people in my life, be them on good terms or bad terms. While still trying to love and honor my family, I was also trying to annihilate history and ties to my Washington hometown and city. This was to be the ultimate of all leavings, and I hoped against return unless to cuddle a nephew or celebrate Christmas with the family. Good riddance was the phrase held in my heart as I left. My attitude that peeking something sabotaging my intentions and spinning this trip as my greatest movement yet.

Four months into my trip, I landed back in Seattle for my uncle's funeral. I was home for 10 days before I left again, this time for Alaska and this time very much aware of the fact that I was running away. In the face of death, I could no longer keep up the pretenses of movement for adventure and the alleviation of poverty. My noble intentions now stripped away, I was forced to view my budding legacy as that of a professional runaway. With the finality of my uncle's death, I finally experienced the bitter taste left behind the person who leaves.

Exhausted, confused and suffering a little bit of PTSD, I returned home from Alaska after four months. My thermos was dry, my crackers were gone, my uncle was still dead, and I needed to finally look at why I couldn't stay in one place for longer than 3 months.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Silliness: Part 1 - Scotland

Life has a way of being silly. Given the plot twists and turns since my 30th birthday, I'm not sure that I can say much with conviction in regards to life plans aside from this: expect silliness.


For years I have been trying to leave. I would say that it started when I got my passport as a junior in high school and traveled to Peru, but that is just when my ability to travel grew to an international scale. The truth is, I was the kid who would irrationally pack up my few prized possessions and flee home for the smelly bit of woods near the sewage stream, the shelter of trees behind the neighbor's wooden fence, or the hallowed out stump/cabin near our neighborhood playground. A brother or two would always follow me on bike, disclose my new secret home to the parents, and convey messages from my mother that if I didn't get home in time for dinner, I would be grounded. The logic of this doesn't make sense, come home now or be grounded, but neither did my new life as a gutter renegade. For instance, I had no plan on how to get water when my thermos ran dry or where to get food when that package of saltines was fully consumed. I always returned home and just in time for dinner. 

As I got older, the home leaving schemes grew larger. At 15, I learned of a fellow 15-year old who started teaching in villages in Africa. I almost badgered the news sharing missionary into telling me exactly how this could be arranged before realizing that my parents valued education and would never support a scheme that didn't have me finishing high school. At 17, my boyfriend introduced me to the idea of crewing for a rich person's yacht, traveling the world and serving various forms of alcohol and food to the 1% while they were around, and enjoying port and boat while they were not. I nearly married the chap for his perceived connections within this high-brow boating community, knowing exactly which states allowed underaged marriage without parental consent, before my puritan fear of sex scared me into acting otherwise. Thank goodness for my parents and that fear. 

At 18, I finally made good on one of my plans. In February, I accepted a nanny job in Scotland, set up independent studies for the classes I still needed to graduate, withdrew from high school, bought a one way ticket to Scotland using funds borrowed from the aforementioned boyfriend, and boarded a plane for Edinburgh foot loose and fancy free. What I didn't see while leaving were the worried and teared up faces of my parents, the devastated look of my childhood friend upon learning that we may not be walking together at graduation, or the general confusion and hurt from countless mentors, teachers and adults in my life that wondered what in the world was going on with me. It took me about a week of performing nanny duties inadequately, experiencing British aristocracy as the serving class, and communicating home (infrequently but enough to realize that life does go on without you) before I finally realized what it really means to run away. 

Or, looking back now, I wish I had learned what it meant to run away. Instead, when things started going badly with my job, when I started feeling homesick and nauseated at the opportunities and friends I'd left behind, when aforementioned boyfriend didn't in fact wait for me and I had no friends with enough history and investment to help me through the heartbreak, I ran away again. This time, from the home of the family where I was working and into the home of my adopted Scottish grandparents until my parents helped me buy a plane ticket home.

My adventure in Scotland consisted of 4 months of employment and 2 weeks of recovery before arriving at the Seatac airport, just in time for prom and graduation. While I learned important lessons about myself and the world on that trip, my desire to leave stayed strong. Thanks to my parents, I'd made it home in time for dinner, experiencing few consequences and never really learning what happened when the thermos dried up or the saltine crackers package was empty.