There Will Be Surprises

Drew Miller, my friend and former Habit Podcast producer/editor, recently told me, “The seeds of hope are in ignorance.”

I’ve been pondering that idea and trying to unpack it, because a) the news of the world has been chipping away at my naturally sunny outlook, and b) willful ignorance, it seems to me, is a huge part of the reason the news of the world is as bad as it is. So how can ignorance be the seedbed of hope?

We live in a culture of catastrophe. More to the point, we live in a culture of catastrophizing—the spinning-up of despair for profit and power. A lot of people make a lot of money by convincing us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, for real this time. I don’t wish to suggest that we should ignore or downplay the very real societal, political, economic, environmental, and interpersonal dysfunctions that confront us. But the weaponization of our legitimate fears and concerns does not make us better able to address our problems.

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The Gray Havens Feel Sensucht.

Dave and Licia Radford constitute the husband-wife duo, The Gray Havens. Their upcoming album, Blue Flower, is inspired by C. S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy and explores “inconsolable longing” and every human’s homesickness for a place they’ve never been. Most of the album’s songs are available on Spotify.

In this episode, Dave and I talk about the ways that joy is both a spur and a guide for creative work. You might also check out the Blue Flower Podcast, in which Dave talks through the origins of each song on the album.

Looking the World Back to Grace

If you’ve read Anne of Green Gables, you probably remember that scene near the beginning when Matthew Cuthbert is driving Anne Shirley from the train station to Green Gables for the first time. Anne chatters away almost without a pause, and Matthew listens, replying only when asked a direct question, and then only briefly.

Everything Anne sees is a marvel to her. A plum tree in bloom puts her in mind of a bride all in white (in spite of the fact that she has never actually seen a bride all in white). She renames the places whose names seem insufficiently delightful. An avenue of blooming apple trees becomes the White Way of Delight, and Barry’s Pond becomes the Lake of Shining Waters.

“Yes, that is the right name for it,” she says when she christens the Lake of Shining Waters. “I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly, it gives me a thrill.”

Is this girl a writer, or what?

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Remembering Father Thomas McKenzie

This isn’t going to be a letter about writing. This letter is going to be a tribute to my dear friend Father Thomas McKenzie. He died yesterday, along with his daughter Ella, in a car accident.

Thomas was an Anglican priest, the rector of Church of the Redeemer in Nashville. Church of the Redeemer is not a megachurch, nor did Thomas aspire to be a megachurch pastor—not to my knowledge, anyway. Instead, he tended to the business of a local pastor. Week in and week out, he told the truest story, and he tended to the people who had been entrusted to his care.

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Up-Goer Five and the Ten-Hundred Most Common Words

In a well-known xkcd comic, Randall Munroe explains the Saturn V rocket in a diagram using only the ten-hundred most common words. (He says “ten-hundred” because “thousand” isn’t one of the thousand most common words.) And since “rocket” isn’t one of the ten-hundred most common words, the diagram is called “The Up-Goer Five.” The Up-Goer Five comic was so popular that Munroe made a whole book of such diagrams called The Thing Explainer. In it he explains such things as food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), the other worlds around the sun (the solar system), and the bags of stuff inside you (cells).

Munroe created a writing-checker to help other writers phrase things in the ten-hundred most common words. I’ve been experimenting with another writing-checker that was inspired by Munroe’s but is a little easier to use. This one was created by Theo Sanderson.

Here is my attempt to explain photosynthesis only using the ten-hundred most common words:

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Governor Bill Haslam on Faithful Presence

This week’s guest on The Habit Podcast is Bill Haslam, a two-term governor of Tennessee and a two-term mayor of Knoxville. In a political climate marked by metastasizing outrage and division, he found success by finding common ground and treating everyone—allies and opponents alike—with decency and respect. Bill Haslam is the author of Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square.

Readers Like to Fill in the Blanks (Sometimes).

In one of our discussions during Writing with Jeeves and Wooster, we got on the subject of ellipsis, the intentional omission of words or information requiring the reader to fill in the blanks. The discussion was occasioned by an episode from Right Ho, Jeeves in which a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle is giving a speech to a room full of schoolboys. Having left all sense of social propriety behind, Gussie has won the hearts and minds of his juvenile auditors. We will pick up at a climactic moment in Gussie’s speech:

“I should like you boys, taking the time from me, to give three cheers for this beautiful world. Altogether now.”

Presently the dust settled down and the plaster stopped falling from the ceiling, and he went on.

This is an excellent example of elliptical storytelling. There is a cause-and-effect sequence here that we can summarize thus:

  1. Gussie encourages the boys to cheer.
  2. The boys cheer.
  3. They cheer so loudly, in fact, that the plaster falls from the ceiling.
  4. Eventually they stop cheering.
  5. The dust settles down and the plaster stops falling.
  6. Gussie resumes his remarks.

Wodehouse skips from Step 1 to Step 5, requiring the reader to do the mental/imaginative work of supplying Steps 2-4. So a sort-of-funny joke (The boys cheered so loudly that the plaster fell from the ceiling) becomes a significantly funnier joke. Doing that little extra mental work gives the reader a little extra pleasure.

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Diana Glyer on C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I speak with Professor Diana Pavlac Glyer. She is an expert on Tolkien and Lewis, especially with regard to their collaboration in the Inklings group. She is also the editor of A Compass for Deep Heaven—a collection of essays about Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. This book is the fruit of Professor Glyer’s practicing what she preaches in generous collaboration with emerging scholars.

You Can’t Save Time

I recently got a Monk Manual, a daily planner that seeks to incorporate some of the intentionality and structure of monastic life in order to establish “peaceful being and purposeful doing.” I can’t say it has transformed my life (yet), but I suspect that has more to do with a general un-monkishness on my part than with the merits of the planner, which is by all accounts excellent.

However, I have very much benefited from the the emails I have received from Monk Manual founder Steve Lawson. In a recent email/blog post called “The Impossibility of Saving Time,” Lawson offers a helpful shift of perspective on the matter of time management.

We speak of “saving time” and “spending time” as if time were money (which is something else we say). But time, of course, can’t be saved the way money can be saved. To save money is to stop its flow and collect it in a reservoir to be used later. But time keeps on flowing at the same rate, no matter what we do. There’s no such thing as a time-dam. That’s a lot of figurative language: Time is like money, money is like a river, savings are like a reservoir, and the saving-for-later aspect of a reservoir relates back to time.

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