A Significant Place

    Another short assignment, this time to describe a significant place, paying special detail to specifics and concrete realities than can help individualize the scene and make it vivid and believable to the reader. My description ends with an event, but hopefully that's acceptable because a place is usually not significant unless something happens there.

    "The Donut Pond"

    There was once a playground behind my church, and in it stood a large wooden structure, a tower. I often found myself climbing up its rickety steps late at night, my shoes dew-soaked and my hands gripping the rails loosely to avoid splinters. Its wood rubbed rough under my hands as they passed over its cracked and faded grey surface, except for where there were blotches of softer greenish moss and mildew. I would push my pen and journal into my pocket and use both hands to hoist myself up to the topmost beam of the tower. The beam supported a pole beneath it, the kind for kids to wrap their arms and legs around and slide down to the mulch-covered ground below.

    My legs would dangle off the beam, with nothing between them and the ground fifteen feet below. To my right lay Grace Fellowship Church, my church, nestled low to the ground like a monastery. It had tan, stuccoed walls, reddish doors, and a prominent frame of dark lumber. Directly before me and to my left were our two small ponds, filled with the memories of several decades’ worth of baptisms and summer camp canoe races. I had participated in both. Behind the ponds was a soccer field that stretched out and ended in a gravel road. Running along the entire length of the road was an edge of woods that circled around the ponds on my left, the church on my right, and closed in on the hill behind me like a great curtain.

    I would sit atop my tower at the numerous summer camps or winter retreats my church hosted or during spontaneous times of introspection that led me wandering through the grounds near my church. Journals were filled there, love letters composed, tears shed, curses and questions and praises called out over the waters of the pond. The scene was constant and reliable over the years--the hard line of treetops all around me, the welcoming red doors of the church building, the moon reflecting off the pond water.

    I had changed over the years, though--often as a result of time spent on top of that tower. Two summers ago, just weeks before I moved away for college, I heard of plans to tear down the playground. I joked with friends that all twenty years of my faith would collapse along with it. Then, in the last few days before leaving for school, some friends and I had a campfire in the woods near our church. We went to gather wood from a stack of logs and scrap wood, and there I found pieces of the faded grey lumber. These were oddly drier than everything else in the pile, and so we hauled them over to the fire and burnt them up. Everything outside the ring of firelight faded to night, and my shoes became soaked with dew. I felt my insides turning to ashes at what I had done. But as I sat and warmed my hands over the smoldering playground equipment, another tower, made of smoke, billowed up past the treetops and disappeared into the sky.

    Two Poems: A Focus on Audience

    The assignment was to write two poems based on the same event, one for a close, personal audience and the other for a more general audience. I'm not sure if I actually did that or if I just changed who the poem was addressed to.

    Mother, do you remember
    when you hugged your brother?
    Grandma Wiseman was dead,
    and rain fell between the gravestones.
    Our umbrellas kept us dry,
    but your tears wet each others’ backs.

    Just a child then, I looked to the ground.


    Grandma Wiseman was born
    before airplanes or world wars,
    when the world’s odometer had just
    rolled into a fresh century.
    She died after another millenium
    had been marked out with three zeros,
    with airplane crashes and Hiroshima
    as well-known milestones.

    Father pulled the Honda off the dirt road.
    He appreciated the pastor’s soft words,
    mother the selections of Scripture.
    My brother and I stayed silent in the backseat.
    We drove on to the memorial service,
    the numbers on the dashboard
    counting off the distance.

    John Updike--"Hoeing"

    Since class assignments are already completed and typed onto my computer, they are easier to post than anything else I write (if there is anything else I write). Here's an analysis of the poem "Hoeing" by John Updike, with the text of the poem included. I can't figure out how Updike can write such a pure and almost conventionally beautiful poem as this but also produce novels like "Amazon" that are almost pornographic... or so I've heard. I haven't actually read that book.

    John Updike, “Hoeing”

    I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
    of the pleasures of hoeing;
    there is no knowing
    how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

    The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
    moist-dark loam--
    the pea-root’s home,
    a fertile wound perpetually healing.

    How neatly the green weeds go under;
    The blade chops the earth new.
    Ignorant the wise boy who
    has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.


    The actual content of the poem is the clearest and foremost way Updike reveals its theme. The first stanza introduces the two levels on which he will be working: the dirt of the earth and the human soul. The progression of these first four lines connects the physical act of tilling the ground to a deeper level of inner spiritual cultivation as a single experience. The second stanza then offers an image describing most obviously an agrarian task. However, this is also an account of the complex nature of soul-growth as a painful and destructive act, but also as a necessary undertaking that offers rich, life-giving rewards. Indeed, hoeing necessarily opens scabs and surface wounds, but this reveals the potential for growth and healing. Finally, the third stanza explains how the green weeds already flourishing, whether rooted in dirt or heart, must be sacrificed to bring forth the “moist-dark” treasures of wisdom, wonder, and ultimately, the new life of earth and soul.

    Several elements of form also contribute to the poem’s meaning. Overall, the long, dragging lines set off by short, chopped-off lines suggest the hauling and hacking motions of the hoe. In the second stanza, the crack of the dry earth’s scab is emphasized by the placement of a comma directly after the word “breaks” in line 5, and the two hyphenated words introduce and signify the fusion of destructive and curative powers into a healer-wound. Lastly, the semi-colon at the end of line 9 emphasizes the chopping action of the hoe, serves as the pivotal point of turning-over from weeds to new earth, and sets off the most concrete, concise, and profound image of the hoe’s work: “the blade chops the earth new.” These structural components contribute subtly but powerfully to the theme revealed by the poem’s content.


    "Rags and Tatters in the Terrible Swamp"

    Another essay, this one for my history class "Modern History of the World and the West." The prof includes a lot of original source material as well as more literary readings, which is refreshing compared to the usual rut of textbooks and workbooks. This particular essay was an analysis of the historical fiction novel "Silence" by Shusaku Endo. It tells the story of a Jesuit priest who sneaks into Japan as a missionary during the period when Japan was shutting itself off from the West, especially from Christianity. The book has caused quite a stir, especially among Japanese Christians or those who are interested in the way that Christianity spreads across cultural boundaries, at times fusing to or at other times displacing the native culture and its religion.

    It's really a powerful novel, in spite of what seems to be some problems with the translation and editing, and even some more glaring problems with the writing itself. Endo is considered Japan's leading novelist, and "Silence" is greatly comparable to Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory." In fact, "Silence" takes at least one key phrase directly from 'The Power and the Glory," and the critical acclaim on the back of "Silence" features a quote from Greene praising it as one of the finest books of the 20th century.

    “Rags and Tatters in the Terrible Swamp”

    In the novel “Silence,” author Shusaku Endo raises many theological issues. He addresses, perhaps most prominently, God’s silence in the presence of evil, but he also struggles with God’s sovereignty and love in relation to the apostle Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the nature of true Christian faith in regards to martyrdom, apostasy, and the silence of the persecuted church. Most of these issues are resolved powerfully by the book’s end. However, Endo also raises another question: how can Christianity fit into Japanese society without one of the two being compromised? To answer this difficult question, Endo tells us the tragic but redemptive story of Sebastian Rodrigues. By focusing on Rodrigues’ transformation from a Portuguese priest into the truly Japanese man Okada San’emon, Endo asserts that Westernized, European Christianity--what translator William Johnston terms “Hellenistic Christianity” (xvii)-- must be rethought before it can enter Japanese society.

    At the beginning of the novel, Father Rodrigues is the embodiment of this Hellenistic Christianity, bearing also the ethnocentric, colonizing spirit of Western Europe. He has a naivety of Japanese culture that leads him to remark to Garrpe that all Japanese people look the same. Rodrigues also maintains a sense of absolute assurance in the rightness of his own beliefs and those of his church. In his first encounter with Inoue and the daimyo, he tells them, “According to our way of thinking, truth is universal” (108), betraying his foundational conviction that not just Christianity, but the Portuguese way of doing Christianity, is the only and absolute truth.

    Both Rodrigues and his faith have been transplanted into Japanese culture, and at first they seem to flourish. His work as priest to the impoverished peasants of Tomogi seems to go exceedingly well, just as the initial introduction of Christianity to Japan led to numbers of converts estimated in the hundreds of thousands. “Everything had worked out beyond our wildest expectations,” he writes (45), describing the seeming effortlessness, assuredness, and safety of their work. However, just as the authenticity of the multitudes of Japanese conversions later came into question, Rodriguez begins to see problems in the assimilation of Christianity into Japanese culture. There seems to be “some error in their outlook” and “their whole attitude makes [him] uneasy” (45). As the novel progresses, and especially after encountering Ferreira, Rodrigues will begin to see the deeper issue that is at hand.

    The novel’s central conflict, that is the question of how Christianity can fit into Japanese culture without destroying the integrity of one or the other, is enunciated as both the apostatized Ferreira and the political leaders of Japan, representative of Hellenistic Christianity and imperial Japanese society, respectively, insist that Christianity cannot fit into Japan. Ferreira insists that Christianity can only become trapped in the culture of Japan like a butterfly in a spider web. The external skeleton of the religion may remain intact, but the form of the body is sucked clean of its true inner life. The Japanese, on the other hand, see Christianity as a tree that cannot take root in the swamp-like culture of Japan or a pushy woman whose affection Japan does not desire. The tree produces no fruit, and the woman is barren. Initially, Rodrigues is likewise trapped by these pictures of the conflict between Christianity and Japanese society. The two seem irreconcilable. And yet, through the course of Rodrigues’ stay in prison, as he witnesses executions and apostasies and experiences God’s silence, he discovers an unforeseen means of reconciliation between them that is more radical than he ever could have expected.

    Through what Rodrigues experiences in prison, his understanding of religion and faith, of the Church and missionary work, are drastically altered. He sees ways in which his own Christianity, embedded in a net-like culture of its own, resembles the butterfly trapped in the web of Japanese culture, sucked clean of its inner life. His idea of Christianity as a prospering and triumphant ideology melts into a deep comprehension of the death that true Christianity requires, expressed perhaps as a literal martyrdom or in his case the total sacrifice of one’s culture, one’s independence and security in the world, and even one’s name. He realizes that the pity he had previously felt for the Japanese “was not action. It was not love” (135). In the end, Rodrigues is forced to undertake a new task “more important than the Church, more important than missionary work” (170): that is, to give up his priesthood, his self-assurance, and his righteousness in the eyes of the world in order to truly love others and Christ by, of all things, apostatizing.

    Likewise, the face of his Savior Jesus begins to change. It is no longer the idealized, attractive, commanding, or healthy countenance he often imagined in the past. He begins to see the face of Christ in the one-eyed gaze or servile smile of his fellow man. Christ is downtrodden, unsightly, abused and suffering. Indeed, this is what He reveals to him as Rodrigues holds his foot above the fumie: “Trample! Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I came into this world” (171). It is in this that Rodrigues understands the reconciliation of his faith to Japanese culture. He must abandon himself wholly to it, just as Christ abandoned himself, giving up his livelihood, his rights, and even his name, in order to truly “live the same life as the Japanese Christians” (188), to “become a Japanese” (189).

    Rodrigues acknowledges that his beliefs have changed. He tells God, “My faith in you is different from what it was; but I love you still” (189). He also sees that he has parted ways with the Hellenistic Christianity with which he began: “I know that my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches” (175). And yet in this position, he administers the sacrament of confession to his weak brother Kichijiro, a fellow apostate and Judas-like betrayer of Christ, and finally hears the quiet voice of Christ spoken through his own life.

    By the novel’s end, Father Rodrigues has begun to understand the truth that has since become powerfully evident to Christians: that is, that the evangelization and the Westernization of a society are not, or at least should not be, the same thing. Instead, the truth of his faith must mature beyond the doctrines and practices of his Hellenistic Christianity to become the living, incarnating Truth that is the person of Jesus. Rodrigues is the novel’s example of this as he gives up everything to show love to those “wasted like rags and tatters” (116) around him. Thus, “Silence” demonstrates that although the roots of the Westernized European church cannot take hold in Japan’s cultural swamp, the incarnating spirit of Jesus, betrayed, trampled upon, and soft-spoken to the end, enters Japan “like water flowing into dry earth” (32).

    "Good Things From Grease"

    This is another essay I wrote for my English class. It was supposed to be a "persuasive essay," but seeing as I have enough trouble convincing myself of most things, it was a challenge to craft a piece that truly attempts to persuade anyone of anything. I guess that purely rhetorical arguments are not the most effective means of affecting today's individualized, think-for-yourself, "postmodern" readership, and that's why many writers opt for raw and hard data, historical documentation, and especially personal story-telling (memoir) as means of persuasion. Anything less didactic, deconstructible, etc. etc. than a pure essay.

    I tried to take a casual and light tone, but ended up mostly repeating myself and not narrowing anything down to workable specifics. At least that's the gist of what my professor said, and I'm inclined to believe him. Sometimes amidst the joking around in class or reading the pencil scribbles on returned assignments, it's easy to forget that I'm learning from and receiving critique from an accomplished, award-winning author (he won NEWBERRY PRIZE for his children's novel "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy"!). It's definitely a privilige, and it helps that he's such a funny, caring, and laid-back guy. Anyways:

    "Good Things From Grease"

    As automobile drivers, Americans are disconnected from their vehicles. They take for granted the transportation that they have such easy access to and are forgetful, even thoroughly unaware of the intricate machinery that carries them so dependably, safely, and quickly. Cars do not demand engagement or involvement from their users, other than the occasional oil change or engine repair. By default, the average car owner never considers the development and technological advances that have come together to produce the masterpiece that now resides in his or her garage. It can be even harder to find someone with gratitude for the opportunity and the money to possess such a convenient, efficient (at least in some regards), and luxurious invention. Odds are, the person hardly has any idea how the thing works, other than the standard procedures for on/off, accelerate/decelerate, and refuel.

    When Americans turn sixteen years old, they earn not only the right to legally operate a vehicle, but often they will also inherit an automobile of their own. Unfortunately, they very rarely receive any appreciation for what they so easily acquire. They are only required to reach out and snatch the keys from a parent’s open hand to access levels of speed, convenience, and autonomy that are wholly unprecedented. They soon become a blur across the landscape, gliding here and there in climate-controlled isolation towards whatever destination they fancy.

    But, with the jangling keys comes the beginning of a lifetime of careless, meaningless, and stressful dependence on personal vehicles. The young driver will soon become just another road-enraged driver, taking his or her place in the cursing commotion of traffic jams and adding their voices to the never-ending grumble against gas prices. Compared to the intimate relationship between ancient riders and their animal means of transportation or to the more modern, community- and group-oriented systems of train or bus travel, the spirit of the automobile has become unfeeling and coldly utilitarian in every aspect. There is no connection from the heart or mind to the engine, to the landscape being navigated, or to the other people traveling nearby.


    But, for those environmentally or financially conscious, those who enjoy cars and contraptions, or those who undertake diverse projects and hobbies; for the slightly subversive, creative, or curious; for anyone who feels the prevailing disconnect of the automobile: there is the possibility of running a car on vegetable oil. After only a minor DIY or professional conversion procedure performed on any diesel-engine-bearing car, truck, van, or bus, it is possible to drive right on past the gas station and instead fill up with the free grease in a waste storage unit behind the local Chinese restaurant.

    The potential to run a diesel engine on pure, unmodified vegetable oil is no new discovery. The engine’s inventor, Rudolf Diesel, once designed a prototype engine that ran on peanut oil, and he also speculated on the possible future significance of running vegetable oil as fuel. The mounting “energy crises” and the concerns about fossil fuels, along with recent innovations and improvement from largely grassroots efforts, have resulted in increased interest in both SVO (Straight Vegetable Oil) and WVO (Waste Vegetable Oil). Especially on the Internet, numerous websites have emerged offering resources, statistics, services, and a place to network with other people interested in vegetable fuel sources.

    Many benefits of using vegetable oil are being touted by those involved in the growing community of its users and innovators. The fact that waste vegetable oil can be gathered for a slight charge or often for free from restaurants, chip or snack factories, and potato processing plants, is an immediate and very appealing benefit to users. Online companies offer pumps with built-in filters that be used to fill a vehicle up directly from a WVO storage unit. Also, it must be noted that deisel engines, whether running off diesel or vegetable fuel, are up to 40% more efficient than their average gasoline-burning counterparts.

    Environmentally aware people may appreciate that the emissions from engines running on vegetable oil contain no sulfur dioxide, the prime chemical contributor to acid rain. Also, while the level of carbon dioxide produced by WVO-burning engines is comparable to that produced by diesel-burning engines, the gross figure for WVO-burning engines is actually less because the plants that end up as fuel in a gas tank spend their life in the field absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

    On perhaps a more profound level, the entire process of converting a diesel engine to run off of SVO or WVO is a powerful way for people to cure the disconnect they find between themselves and their vehicles, their surroundings, and their partners on the road. Just doing the preliminary research and installation work forces owners to learn about the basic functioning and mechanics of their vehicle. They are forced to interact with the nuts and bolts of what they depend on so frequently. As they talk online or face to face with other people interested in cars, the environment, saving money, subcultures, or travel, people will naturally develop connections to humans other than the car salesmen, auto mechanics, or insurance agents that the present system offers. After the conversion, the process of setting up and maintaining a supply of vegetable fuel can connect people to their neighborhoods, cities, and entire country in new ways, as the act of keeping a car running moves beyond the commercial sphere and becomes a creative and relational task that takes planning and current knowledge of a person’s surroundings. The environmental advantages of vegetable fuel offer users a chance to learn about and engage with the surrounding natural world. Whether on cross-country road trips of short trips across town, travel has the potential to become a more thoughtful, meaningful, and intentional part of a person’s life.

    Obviously, neither straight or waste vegetable oil is the miraculous alternative fuel source that will solve energy crises or save the environment. The world’s food supply cannot be diverted to take the place of gasoline, and all of America’s drivers cannot begin mining grease dumpsters for fuel. And yet, for those resourceful and motivated, intrigued by the opportunity to benefit from the waste of society and concerned about the environment, the possibility may strike them as something good and worthwhile. And it can even be hoped that making the switch to vegetable oil will in some way contribute to holistic and healthy lifestyles, reconnecting people to their vehicles, their surroundings, and each other.


    "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky"

    the following is a "personal essay" i wrote several weeks ago for my Craft of Writing class. there's a lack of subtance and the emotions are too overbearing. my professor said there's no coherent flow to the piece as a whole, and no, i don't know where the idea to use all the Bob Dylan stuff came from. in hindsight, i feel like i didn't manage to express what i was attempting to express. blah blah blah.

    "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky"

    We walked uphill towards the far end of the clearing, and found ourselves atop the ridge of a naturally-formed hillside ampitheater. A huge outdoor stage lay below where we stood, facing us. The friends we were visiting explained that we were on the abandoned grounds of an outdoor music festival, untouched since the 1970s when The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan had filled the surrounding hills with the waves and winds of rock and roll. For decades, it had lain hidden away like the ruins of a forgotten temple.

    We climbed onto the stage, which was littered with squares of stage platforms that rolled on rusted wheels. Straining together, we maneuvered one of these pieces out from under the awning of the stage and stretched out on it, on our backs, under the stars. The moon was just a sliver that night, we had left the glare of man-made lights in our dust miles down the road, and our backs pressed against ground that Brian Wilson had once tread. For all these reasons, the stars seemed brighter, closer, and more numerous than ever before. What had always seemed just a few sparkling stones strewn across the heavens was then a thick, glittering dust that coated over the glassy dome of the sky. For a while we forgot everything, forgot all of our subterranean homesick blues, and became lost in the mystery of the firmament spread out around us.


    I’ve been reading a book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” by a guy named Thomas Cahill. It talks about how people in ancient times understood the universe. To them, Cahill explains, the sky was the realm of the gods, literally populated by the dieties of their religion. They transcribed supernatural dramas and truths from the stars and based their agricultures, governments, religions, and personal lives upon the movement of lights in the rotating sky-dome. Of course, now we know better than these ancients, and their worldview seems bizarrely naive. We know that the sun is not really a flaming chariot that drives over our heads and crashes into the sea at the end of each day. We know better than to offer sacrifices to heavenly bodies or to structure our society after the constellations.

    And yet, we have not escaped the heavens and their influence. The sun truly is the source of our planet’s life, and the moon reaches down even through our atmosphere to churn up the tides of the ocean. On an even deeper level, the heavens have remained the quintessential picture of mystery and beauty, whether in art, religion, or secrets whispered between lovers. As Cahill notes, the sky “is still our principal metaphor for limitlessness and transcendence,” a metaphor used to convey the mysteries of our human experience.

    I wonder, then, if the scientists who have unmade the supersitious beliefs of the ancients and purged the sky of deities are all that different than the priests of old. With diagrams and equations, astronomers and physicists try to describe mystery and immensity from a distance that is almost unimaginable. They peer out through telescopes to search the dark void for light and matter, or they sort through notebooks of calculations bent on a task similar to that of a monk or a poet. They seek to describe and communicate to us ideas and visions that are so incredible we could not imagine them on our own, and with their help we finally begin to visualize and comprehend a universe that exceeds our expectations and imaginations. They are seers, or see-ers, just as much as priests or poets.

    And so Bob Dylan, a seer in his own rite, said it like this:

    Seen a shooting star tonight
    And I thought of you.
    You were trying to break into another world,
    A world I never knew.
    I always kind of wondered
    If you ever made it through.


    The next summer, Katie and I were on our way home from visiting the same friends and again found ourselves near the festival grounds. We pulled off through a field and into the same clearing. We parked and walked over the ridge of the hill to find the stage still there, still sacred. We remembered the intensity of the stars the summer before and looked up to a similar spectacle, this time with the full face of the moon also shining down on us. To our right was one of several abandoned, shed-like buildings we had seen the year before, and in the moonlight we saw that it had once been some sort of concession stand or ticket booth, with an awning extending out from a large window that covered most of its front. Edges of plywood surrounded the windowframe, but the main panels had been knocked out. We tried to see into its interior, but the moonlight from above revealed nothing past the windowframe.

    As we examined the building, the sense of beauty that had filled the night shifted to an atmosphere of childish mischief and fright. We were sure the building was haunted, that someone or something lived there in the shadows. We dared each other to creep up to the window, and both accepted the challenge, snickering but becoming genuinely nervous. We made it to the window but still couldn’t see anything inside. Pieces of broken glass lay about our feet and seemed to catch the reflection of the stars.

    On another dare, we stepped together over the damaged windowsill into the dark, our legs stretching to find the floor. The soles of our shoes crushed onto shards of glass and sent our pulses surging, but we held our breaths and took several steps into the dark, onto creaky floorboards, and halted. Our eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, and we could just make out each other’s faces when several winged creatures, birds or bats, dropped down from the ceiling and flapped out of the window. We both screamed, leapt back over the windowsill, and ran to the car. Katie plunged the keys into the ignition, and whipped the car around through the grass and back down to the main road, both of us laughing at ourselves and overwhelmed with a strange sense of excitment. We had approached something unknown. It was just a shed, yes, but our imaginations had been overwhelmed by the mystery of it all, and so it felt as if we had, for a brief moment, broken into another world.