Sola Fide (lines from Measure for Measure)

“Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not.”
- Angelo, Measure for Measure, 4.4

I’ve never understood this bit about God not giving us more than we can bear. First, because that’s not quite what the verse says, and second, because, in my experience, God very often gives me more than I can bear. But even as a young child, I got hushed by Sunday school teachers for asking why, if this is true, Christians commit suicide. I was a difficult child.

But semantics aside, I’ve always struggled with faith. I know people able to will themselves to faith, to satisfy any sorrow with the belief that God is doing what’s best for them. I don’t doubt that, I just almost never want what’s best for me, and I usually suspect that I will manage to squander “what’s best for me” and make a mess of that too. I have very great faith in my ability to squander things.

I’ve also noticed that there are at least two ways to struggle with faith.  The first seems noble, admirable; it is to wrestle, Jacob-like, with God. It is to struggle like Job, who questioned God up and down, for chapter upon endless chapter. God showed up to rebuke Job, yes, but God talked to Job. The second kind of struggle, my kind of struggle, is to take control, or to take control back, from God. To say, I know what I want and I know how to get it, and I will be doing that now, thanks. I haven’t made a complete biblical inventory, but characters like this don’t seem to end well.

***

When I was clinically depressed, in college, I remember dozens of times when, physically exhausted hours of sobbing, I would pray the words I had been taught would change things: “Lord, I surrender this to you.” And then, after the second or third time: “Really this time, Lord. I’m giving this to you, so why aren’t you taking it. Take it. I’m giving it to you. Take it. Take it.” My memory of that time period is of countless prayers going into the void. It was like praying to a brick wall, praying to an empty room, praying to a made-up god.

I did everything I knew to do. I went to church faithfully, even when I didn’t want to. Once Philip couldn’t go with me, and I went anyway, which I never do. This is faith, this is faith, this is faith. About halfway through the second song, I had to leave because I couldn’t stop crying. I was sitting near the front, and it was humiliating to flee past all those joyful people while trying to stanch my tears. A middle-aged man, about my father’s age and build, followed me to the parking lot to ask  if I was ok. I told him I was really homesick, which was partly true, and he hugged me and asked me if I was ok to drive. Then I left, still crying. I recognize it now as a moment of real beauty in my life, because that’s mostly what fathers and father figures are on this earth to do, to tell girls that they are loved. But at the time it meant very little to me. There is a pain that shuts out love.

There’s more to this story, but in the end, I was finally diagnosed and put on antidepressants, and they worked. Which is no great surprise, of course. I never believed that I could “pray away” depression; that’s silly and I hope we’re all past that. I just didn’t know that depression could make God absolutely disappear. I still don’t know what to make of the fact that only chemicals restored prayer as a conversation, allowed me to hear from God again, allowed me to be comforted by God again. Things shouldn’t work that way. God should be stronger than depression.

***

Praying into the void. I felt that again this spring, albeit briefly, when we were trying to make a decision about my grad school this fall. I had prayed for weeks that I would be admitted to my top choice, a prestigious school with full funding about two hours from us. It would require a split household, but we’d heard from many others who had done similarly. I was admitted, but instead of relief there was dread. The stress of imagining a life with two homes—for a homebody, this is hell. My second best option, or rather, my most practical option, was here in Grand Rapids.

For many days I either didn’t eat or ate way too much; I hardly slept; my stomach never calmed. I woke up confident in one choice and went to sleep fully convinced of the other. As the anxious days wore on, the void returned. I prayed for wisdom and felt nothing. No word, no peace, no comfort.

In the end, a wise and generous priest counseled us, told us to pray that God would close a door, told me some other things I needed to hear. At the end of that meeting, I felt as conflicted as ever, but by the following morning, Philip and I both knew. So we made the choice to stay here in Grand Rapids. It was a choice toward wholeness and humility, away from ambition and prestige. That sounds really noble, written out, but it was also a choice, potentially, toward more limited options. Choosing against options is essentially choosing against probability. Probability of what—happiness, success, financial solvency? Hard to say here in the dark present, hard not to fear the worst.

But there is only one part of faith that I understand, and by that I must abide. I do not know, not really, how not to live an anxious life or how to embrace being thwarted or how to actually believe that I can make it through sixty more years on this earth. The one thing about faith that I know, though, is that on those rare occasions when you hear from God, when you actually do, you honor that. If there is one thing you know, even one thing, you do not second-guess it. When God speaks, you listen not just then but every moment thereafter.

Our decision brought a flood of peace to anxious days, and I believe that God, not bound by time, intends for it to calm not just those days but all days.

The Tweetest Thing

Look, ya’ll, I know this Twitter thing ain’t new. Ever since Diane Rehm, the matriarch of public radio, starting croaking “or send us a tweet” at the tail end of her call for calls, snail mails, and e-mails, non-twitterers like me were officially behind the times.

I do know how to tweeter. It’s actually one of those things my employer pays me to do, even if they shouldn’t. I can hashtag with the best of them.

I just never thought that I personally had anything to twit about.

Honestly, Twitter always frightened me. It was a place where the Me-Monsters could yell at no one in particular, in poor syntax, about their uninteresting exploits. It was a place where, new updates cascading down the page ad nauseam,  the attention deficit could scratch their itch indefinitely, and the mimetically susceptible would boil over (into violence, of course) due to the profusion of new mediators. It was a place, in short, where all my weaknesses (except syntax) would be exploited.

I can say, now that I have finally waded, chest-deep, into the Twitter stream, that all these fears were justified. But there was something I didn’t expect, and that thing is keeping me here, anchored, I hope, mid-stream and with my head above water. That thing is this: Twitter is a place where you can win.

There is, of course, the obvious way to win on Twitter—collecting followers—but that wasn’t a way could win. Ain’t nobody catching Katy Perry.

It wasn’t until Erin scored her first celebrity re-tweet that I heard the sweet chirping of my own social media vocation. That was something I could do too. Game on.

I won’t give you a play by play, but within a week of resuscitating @PZoutendam, and after notching three or four minor victories, I scored this:

NPR Twitter

That’s right—not one, but two NPR personalities, tweeting at me, my wife, and each other about my tweet. Beat that, fellow nerds.

All this may make me look like just another Me-Monster, drunk on small beer. But here’s the difference: I know this is small beer. This is all fun and games. I’m not saving the world, changing my own life or anyone else’s, 140 characters at a time. I’ll save the serious stuff for real sentences with real people.

Social media is kinda dumb, ya’ll. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll be #winning it.

The Grammar of Love

“Hey, babe? . . . Babe?”

This is usually how I know Erin is awake. She wakes up with a question, something I need to weigh in on. It is often urgent, plaintive, and it typically hovers around this theme: “Will I die?”

You might think this a rather philosophical start to the day, an attempt to question one’s own mortality, the hard but honest truth being Yes, you will die; everyone will die eventually. But the question here is not, “Will I die eventually,” but, “Will I die right now?” I’ve found that the truth here—No, you will not—offers little comfort, so I usually just hold her hand through the rest of her concerns: “I feel like I’m dying. My legs aren’t working. I don’t think I can get out of bed. This kitty needs me to stay here. Don’t laugh when I’m being serious.”

Mornings are hard on some of us.

I was preparing to help navigate us through these rough waters again today. (“Babe? . . . Hey, babe?”) But then this: “I think I should get an eHarmony account.”

*curious silence*

“I’ve heard you can get matched with some really weird people. I think we should make a fake account.”

And I thought this a very good idea for so early in the morning.

One particular character Erin told me about was a wannabe James Bond, a playboy petroleum engineer, at least according to his projected image. “He wanted to travel the world with a beautiful woman at his side,” he wrote. In his free time, he “enjoyed reading articles on, science dining eroticism and, wild sex.”

Though I silently feared the allure of this man’s money and the prospect of world travel, Erin put those fears to rest. Wealth and luxury could not overcome her editorial instincts. His prose was too redundant, his lapsed commas too unbearable.

She disposed of him with the first of, I hope, many damning dismissals: “He did not prove himself a capable grammarian.”

Art & Craft (lines from Hamlet)

“More matter, with less art.”
- Gertrude, Hamlet 2.2

I was going to write something about Kansas. Kansas is the subject of not one, but two lovely essays by Erin, and I thought I might find some inspiration there too, some spark to elevate my thought and prose closer to hers. But I didn’t get very far.

It’s not that I had nothing to say. I started the essay; I knew where it was headed; I even had a couple of nifty lines pre-cast and waiting in the margins. It’s just that, as I realized last night right with the gentle fog of sleep rolling in, I started by saying the wrong thing.

I started by talking about photos, and by saying that I am not a photographer, which in an obvious sense is false. I take photos every day and I get paid for them. It is literally part of my job to take pictures—in fact, it is the part of my job that takes the most time. I took my job at Habitat for Humanity, working in communications, because of the writing, but it turns out writing is no longer a primary mode of communication. Writing just offers an interpretation (optional) for the gauzy images that dwarf it on the spread of each newsletter, brochure, and webpage produced. So I take about two photos for each word I write, and that is my job.

But of course I meant, and intended to explain, that I am “not a photographer” in a different sense, that more essential sense that Socrates would pursue when wrapped in a dialogue—surely there was one like this—about the “true photographer,” the one who does it in the right way at the right time, with both knowledge and love of his art. That is not me. The muse of photography, whoever she is, has never lighted on my shoulder, whispered in my ear. I am a hack. I widen the aperture, set the exposure and change the shutter speed, in desperate and mechanical imitation of anyone who appears to know what she’s doing. I feel like an chimp, just aping people with a toy I can manipulate but not understand. The results are sometimes interesting but largely random. Most of my photos go right to the recycle bin.

Thus there is one subject for which I am not a photographer in any sense: our family photos. My clumsy attempts to “capture memories” produced enough limbless people and unrecognizable buildings that we tacitly agreed, at some early point in our marriage, that Erin would take all our keepsake pictures.

So my photography career progresses within a comical irony: I am a paid professional, but I am so poor an artist that I am not allowed to be an amateur.

This, of course, has everything to do with Kansas, and I was going to explain how . . . but then in that midnight epiphany I saw how wrong my beginning was. It was fiction based on falsehood.

The myth of the muses I accept—not as literal truth, but as a fitting poetic description of the mystery of genius. Some art seems inspired, breathed into the artist by something external that he himself cannot explain. Some artists appear, in a truly passive sense, to be “gifted.” What a blessing to our lives.

But art in most instances is not Art in this way. It is not blind rapture or divine possession. It is really less Art than craft, the practice of principles that accrues, however slowly and imperceptibly, into perceptible skill. This we were taught as freshman English students, bewildered at the low marks on our essays; perplexed at the sudden failure of our old method: writing what came to us;  hoping for some new word from Parnassus to solve all our problems. A fresh muse wasn’t what we needed, or at least it wasn’t something we would get. Practice and study—and a few tours through The Elements of Style—was what we needed. Our senior papers attest the truth of that. No one became Samuel Johnson or Evelyn Waugh with a few year’s practice, but we could craft our sentences with purpose and effect. We got better.

To divide the the world of art simply into haves and have-nots is falsehood. Certainly the distribution of gifts varies, and certainly there are geniuses for whom art seems all ease and no effort. But the rest of us aren’t just stuck in deficiency.

And thus my own narrative of hopeless artistic deficiency was a fiction. The thing about humans is that we are not apes. Even when we think we’re just aping someone, something distinctly human happens to us if we do it long enough. We start to understand.

That happened just last week to me. I even felt it happening. I glanced up from my desk and realized the light outside was ideal for shooting our garden at work, so I grabbed my camera. I trolled around and suddenly saw a lovely structure for the background. I took some photos, saw they weren’t quite what I wanted, and took a few more till I got it right. In 30 minutes, I was a demonstrably better photographer.

The months of trial and error preceding that felt like futility, but they were more like fertilizer, preparing the soil for sudden growth.

It’s true that there was something like inspiration—the sudden, unexpected realization, coming as it were out of thin air. But I would call it intuition, and I think it’s something earned and developed, not exactly received. Or perhaps, more accurate, it’s a kind of receptivity that’s earned and developed. Maybe the muses do speak to the rest of us, or at least let us overhear them. We just need to learn their language.

Terroir

In one of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, he mentions mountains like crumpled butcher paper, which at the time I believed to be probably one of his more imaginative metaphors, fanciful and untethered to reality. I had seen mountains,* hiked mountains, skied mountains, rode horses through mountains, and they all had pine trees and sundry scratchy shrubs and often snow. They were green and grey and craggy, but not deep brown and not crumpled. Even McCarthy has to stretch sometimes, I assumed, to evoke that godless-wasteland feeling so necessary to his novels.

But then, while we were living in Phoenix, I flew back into the city from the north, crossing a stretch of desert. I remember gasping audibly—mountains like crumpled butcher paper. Those mountains were perhaps the most startling landscape I saw in Arizona, although we saw the Grand Canyon, and forests of Aspens near Flagstaff, and, my favorite, Oak Creek Canyon in the fall. But the fearful vastness of these butcher paper mountains—even from the plane they were all I could see. This land can kill you.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that we left Arizona. There were practical reasons, but there was also the fact that life there seemed always a mirage—temporary, improbable, foolhardy. And of course now we live in West Michigan, the third coast, the promised land, where everything grows.

But my soul will always be Kansan. Not just because it is a modest, quiet place, but because it is the land that I find beautiful. Perhaps only people from the Midwest, by birth or adoption, find it beautiful, but the older I get the more I wonder that I never noticed it as a child.

I was driving with my mother east on I-70 toward Kansas City a few weeks ago, and the many shades of green rolled over me like a flood. The many grasses, the hedgerows planted and then abandoned by farmers long ago, the few trees like sentinels guarding their domain, each its own varietal of green. The darkest greens are the leaves of the trees, and then down to the shrubs and weeds, and finally the pale green of the grass, drawing the eye ever downward to the earth, rooted. This is where we dwell, this is where we stay.

"Morning Mist - Kansas River Valley" by Rod Steel

“Morning Mist – Kansas River Valley” by Rod Seel

When the wind blows, one can see the nether leaves of every bush and tree, all silver hued and cold; the heightened contrast of green against silver makes each leaf visible, and the effect is of sharpened, quickened senses. Each blade, each stalk, each branch curves into an arc—vital, dynamic. It is very like the sea, I think.

Whenever I see the prairie, I can’t help but think of all the stories of pioneers that I was told or read as a child. I don’t know if other Americans hear these stories in such great number, or if it is just us plain-states children, nestled in the valley of the country. If tales can be believed, each of these pioneers was a saint, strong and tireless and brave. I don’t know if everyone else sees pioneers as the real heroes of the country, or if that’s just us too.

Sometimes I get embarrassed now, thinking of those early settlers. They moved from strength to strength, but I tend more to move from crisis to crisis, each one less worthy of emotion than the last. It occurred to me only very recently that I could perhaps stop living like that, if I wished. It would take time, and I would have to start small, but I might someday be stronger than I am. I could take as a touchstone the vitality and energy of the plains and decide to live that way, looking toward the quiet peace of Providence and saying, this is where I dwell, this is where I stay.

***

*I remember vividly the first time I saw a mountain. I was quite young, and I was eager to reach the top of the mountain, because in my mind it would be as sharp as a needle, which is how mountaintops looked in my drawings, where they resembled upside-down v‘s. I was devastated, truly devastated, when my mother told me we were at the top. There was plenty of room to park and walk around, and it was not pointy at all. For all I know this was the beginning of my melancholy nature, which tends to expect disappointment.