Sunday, October 31, 2004

Some friends live in this farm setting near Bucyrus, Kansas. The hay bales are actually "cover" for paintball, but they add atmosphere nonethless!

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Friday, October 29, 2004

Well, my plan backfired. Lindsay was a bit of a wallflower at her own birthday party. At least the rest of us had a good time...
Just kidding. This shot actually has nothing to do with Lindsay's birthday. I've wanted to post it for awhile, and now I have a good excuse. :)

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Exams and Greeks

My classes have kept me on a short leash recently. I've got a couple crucial exams and a big paper coming up, and the fate of the blog hangs (temporarily) in the balance.

In lieu of incredibly great posts, something cutting-edge and inescapably revealing (like my posts usually are), I'll do what I can. More photos and the occasional poem may be the way to go.

In the meantime:

Yesterday was Lindsay's birthday, and the event came off without a hitch, if I may say so myself. She enjoyed her gifts and lunch, and will now suffer the embarrassment of being as old as me for the next eleven days (An awful fate, apparently. All year long she derides me as "old," so the next week and a half are payback time.)

One amusing wrinkle in the festivities came last night, when we went out to dinner with Lindsay's parents. We headed to a local Greek place, and as "luck" would have it, we just happened to drop by on the night when the Greek Band was in session, accompanied by the accomplished Greek Belly Dancer. This made for a unique evening. We munched lamb and pita, and Lindsay would occasionally glance my way to make sure I wasn't being seduced by wiles of the (oldish) dancer.*

We commented on the Greek Photos covering the walls, the Greek Neon-light Marquee ("s-a-y ...o-p-a!"), and the intentional schmaltziness of the restaurant. Business must have boomed when My Big Fat Greek Wedding hit theatres, and management apparently did what they could to capture the film's motif. After blessing the food, Lindsay's dad said, "That was your big fat dad's Greek blessing," which got us started on the movie theme.

Anyway, the day was a success, Lindsay would tell you.
Now, wasn't that a great post?

(*Sequence exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect. -Ed.)

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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Plato’s Shadows*

A Story With Pictures

* Many of us remember the “shadows on the cave wall” illustration, even if we’ve forgotten who came up with it. (Matter of fact, it was Plato.) The philosopher likens us to ignorant people trapped in the depths of a cave and unaware of our captivity. Behind us, a distant fire casts shadowy images of the real world onto the cave wall, and these are all we have to go by. Only an escape from the cave, an arduous intellectual and spiritual struggle, will yield an awareness of life’s true nature, and ultimately a response to Goodness. The heart of the argument is that there are hidden truths lying under the surface of things—ultimate reality—which only a few will ever awake to, much less grasp.

As long as we linger in the cave, clutching what we think is comfort, we won't discover the vivid truth behind our dimly lit existence. Since the darkness of the cave is all-inclusive, we ourselves, as well as every aspect of the “outside” world, will appear alike…as shadows. Until we leave.

This analogy is fascinating, and has much to offer, especially to the
modern mind, drowning in culture that tends to obscure, rather than illuminate, the real self. Recently, “Plato’s shadows” provided inspiring material for some photographic imagination.

Frame 1

As shadows, we tend to be a social people. In fact, you’ll never find one of us striking off alone. (If someone does, we disavow him as unshadowish.) In some places, we shadows are as thick as trees.

Frame 2

I’ve heard it said there's a world where shadows are too thin to go, and I believe it’s true. Isn’t that why we stay together? Once in a long while, a shadow does leave, and this is always painful. Who suffers more, the deserter, or those he leaves behind? Hard to say, but the community is compromised. The outcast has lost his shadow-hood and become something else. Things can never be as they were.

Frame 3

Boundaries exist for a reason, we say. We believe only in what we can see. Just the facts if you please, cold and dark. If we were meant to go looking for another world, we would all know how to get there. It wouldn’t be so elusive. The search wouldn’t be so painful. So why do I feel like something’s missing?

Frame 4

Here is a confession. I think we all secretly dream about leaving. Why is hard to say. But one keeps these feelings to oneself, and they gradually lessen. Still, I sometimes picture the place where a few of us have gone. Or I try. It’s hard to know what it might be like. I’ve walked around and looked, but haven’t found it yet. Perhaps I haven’t tried hard enough. But if I ever find it, I think I’ll know it when I do.

Frame 5

I hear that the next place is a world so great and so un-dim that everything is changed. No shadows there—a new way of perceiving. They say that from there, you can see back into our world. I wonder why we can’t see that world from here. They say the other place is filled with a thing called "light," and that the light will change you. No one I know has ever been there. Some days I think I will be the first.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Wind & Fire

© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

The cold gleam
of sunlight streams
through vivid dying leaves
and I remember
life's summer seemed
to bring.

Is it just me, or is there a certain nostalgia that blows in with Autumn?

Filed in:

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Effortless Creation?

Probing the Problem of Work

There’s something about creation—and all work involves creation, be it espresso, information systems, a team—that implies struggle, sweat, and probably pain. For a few brief years of childhood, we believe it can’t be that hard to write the “great American novel;” we live under the pleasurable illusion that lovely paintings can be made in under ten minutes (with our fingers, no less). But reality sets in, and soon naïve conceptions of effortless creation are a thing of the past. The waves of our aspirations begin crashing on the rocks of time and inability, and our visions, once crystal-clear, get lost in the oceanic haze.

Gradually, we find a new take on accomplishment’s cost. The picture is obscured with rush and clutter, but we gain the conviction that excellence has a price, and a high one at that. Still, something in us whispers that our pursuit of excellence is too hard, too tortured, too elusive. In moments of inspiration, our dreams materialize clear as day, near enough to touch. All that remains is to do. Then the vision is swallowed by the uproar of 10-hour workdays, job insecurity, frenzied commuting, media bombardment…and we either laugh at ourselves or quietly grow sad. Why?

It’s not that effort is fundamentally bad, but that so much of it is wasted. In our arts and pursuits we may achieve high accomplishment, occasionally, but mastery, never. Work, industrious effort (assuming we are diligent, assuming we even care) has become unavoidably bittersweet.

And therefore, joy in work is elusive. When do we ever pin it down? Is there anyone who loves every aspect of her job—all the time? Our outcomes seldom justify our initiatives. Even our masterpieces are inevitably imperfect. War and Peace wanders in places; the Mona Lisa has those cracks; sometimes Plato gets downright strange. And what about us mere mortals?

When I work at writing, I grapple with tools I can hardly use, much less master. I find my mind revolving silently, grasping at inexpressible straws of thought, walking a maze of syntax and jargon, wrestling with words—as with a shapeless mass—to overpower them, force them to coalesce, to express an idea, to take on voice and story-form, to speak… and then, half the time, they don’t. Something’s missing.

When we think of work, in our adult sense, our conceptions are somehow impaired. How so? We can no longer conceive of effortless creation. Or perhaps not effortless, but graceful, deliberate, pleasing. It has been too long, if ever, since we thought on God, spinning mass out of emptiness, creating ex nihilo, with imperative might that staggers heaven, hell and angels, the unmade universe hanging on his words…

God said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT...”

And on the seventh day He smiled, and said, “I like this; this is good.” It’s been too long since we've considered work's essential goodness.

I think of Christ creating, and my mind goes leaping off the reel, spinning in the wake of a fish too big to hook. I’m towed beyond the breakers, past the barrier reefs, into unfathomable, swaying deeps. I splash in deep sea—where the air is clear, and there walks a working man; storms are stilled at his word.

The day will come, I think, when creation’s consummation will match its inspiration. Pain will be a thing of the past; effort will not be wasted. What is visualized and what is made will coincide. That will be work redeemed.

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Saturday, October 23, 2004


This post comes from Kimberly, one of our first guest-posters. Displaying pluck and an ear for poetry, she’s stepped up to tackle a theme that has everything to do with bittersweetness.


Women were made to carry the world's pain, but that also means that Christ gave us strong hearts to bear the burden. Soft and sweet, and strong as steel. It's a mystery, this masterpiece of femininity. We are blessed to be in the company of Mary. So, when your heart is heavy, chin up lady. It was meant to be bittersweet.

What a beautiful word is she
She, the secret infinity
I read in another's poetry
The phrase "while she sleeps" recently
The simplicity captured me
She, like he,
But an added sound
Softens it completely...
And as she sleeps, he
Contemplates her mystery
Divine artistry of subtlety is she
Dreamt by a deity none here can see,
Sweet dream fruit she could only be
And roses bloom beneath her feet
Quiet footsteps mother Mary laid tenderly
She, a word that sings to me
Into deepest profundity
To cherish this precious identity
The Father graciously bestowed upon me...
Ever perfecting my return soliloquy
When the reflection is less than pleasing
Clearly hear the bell that rings
In resounding memory
Repeats the theme eternally,
In spite of all iniquity
What goodness is knowing,
I am she.

© 2004 Kimberly

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Friday, October 22, 2004


This blog's roots are firmly entrenched in the photoblog culture, and I like to emphasize that fact every now and then when I feel myself drifting too far into pure text. Here are a few shots from a recent trip to Weston Bend State Park.

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Fall Valley

Weston Bend's chief calling card is the Missouri river valley. For about 2 miles, our trail hugged a ridgetop overlooking the river, and the valley, filled with turning trees, took a dramatic dive on our right. A showcase for Autumn.

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Alone in the Woods

A well-conceived location. I haven't seen too many lonely yellow benches in my travels. This took a Parks & Rec worker with imagination…

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Dilapidated Beauty

Snapped this inside an ancient tobacco barn in the state park. (I love old rafters.) And so ends the Weston travelogue.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Call for Entries

The more I've thought about BitterSweetness, the more I've realized how engrained it is in our makeup. It follows that people besides me have noticed it, experienced it, and expressed it. Maybe not in precisely the same terms, but definitely pointing to the same truth, the same revealing fact: mingled joy and pain have implications.

Because BitterSweetness is at heart a shared experience, I'd like to hear some of the other voices that are talking about it. And to that end, I'm issuing a call for entries:
Send them here! (You may want to first scan the "must read" posts in the sidebar to see if your thoughts are, indeed, "BitterSweet.") Posting remains at my discretion. In the future, I hope to make this process a little smoother; a permanent link will probably appear at some point.

For now, enjoy this first new contribution from Christian Gonzalez:

When I fall

When I fall
When the breath of divinity
Finds the blood of my mortality
I wonder who am I
That you are mindful of me?

What is within this flesh and blood
That it would find a place
In the heart of love
On an altar of holiness?
Who am I
That you mind my voice
The screams locked in tears
The smiles that bloom unseen?
Who am I
When I stand in your presence
That you welcome my worship?

© 2004 Christian Gonzalez

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004


© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

I'm on a photo kick, but a text post is slowly percolating.

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© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

A bittersweet shot from greener days.

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Monday, October 18, 2004

Sky Lamp

© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

I took this skyscape outside our apartment a couple days ago. The lamp makes it feel so...geometrical?

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Sunday, October 17, 2004


This poem / lyric is related to the "awfulness of light" post below.

There’s a lantern in the attic
and I see
what the cobwebs have hidden
for so many years
and these are not
the treasures of darkness.

There’s a candle in the basement
and I see
what the shadows have hidden
for so many years
and these are not
the riches of the deep.

There is moonlight in the woods
and I see
what the branches have hidden
for so many years
and this is not
eternal springtime.

The soul’s curtain just swept open
and the audience is stunned,
I guess we’d all been hoping
this moment would never come.

But it takes light to break the darkness,
it takes a song to end the night.
It takes light to end the darkness
and the light is life.

© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Amazon Out, BlogExplosion In

Blogkeeping Notes

Just a few items of business. Those of you who have been around awhile will have noticed the various Amazon ads on this page. As of this post, those ads, with the possible exception of "recommendations" links, are a thing of the past. You people weren't getting much benefit from them and neither was I. Now they’re gone, hopefully to be replaced by more legit content.

A recent development in the blogosphere has been BlogExplosion, a well-conceived system for increasing one's site traffic. Judging from my escalating site traffic since I've signed up, the BlogExplosion concept can be considered a success, at least in one respect: It does generate more traffic. The jury is still out concerning the quality of the traffic, though.

Ultimately, BlogExplosion may bring a lot of one-click-and-done visitors to your site, people who have no genuine interest in hanging around. Then again, maybe you'll get lucky, and connect with bloggers who love your writing and think you're fascinating. That would be a "best case" scenario, however. If you're thinking of signing up (which I recommend, it can't hurt ya) here's a link: BlogExplosion.

In any case, the service is free, and the concept is essentially sound. Will it bring an audience to your blog that will stick around over the long haul? Only time will tell. But the added exposure can't hurt, and blogs with consistently fascinating content will probably come out ahead.

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Friday, October 15, 2004

A Tale of Two Stories

This is one of those "thinking out loud" posts that aspiring authors occasionally indulge in. About two months ago, a unique fiction contest kick-started the creative process that eventually resulted in my first complete short story. My story began like this:

Ken and April had heard the rumors. His relatives were always making allusions, vague as they were dark, about his parents, The Builder, and The House. Just jealous old people, Ken would shrug. The estate snapshots were what stopped him short, captivated him. When he surveyed the house, unseen since infancy, he couldn’t help himself. This is the place they say is tainted? Haunted by grandeur, maybe. And then the deeds of property had been unearthed.

A couple weeks ago I received the crushing news that the short story (submitted to the WORLDview Fiction Contest) hadn't made the finalists list. Some might argue that "top ten" out of 1,000 entries is a lofty goal, but nevertheless, there it was: I'd thought I had it in me, but "it" was sadly lacking.

Some of you may recall the painful soul-searching that followed, briefly alluded to here. "To write or not to write?" that was the question. Fortunately, I emerged from the experience humbled but determined. The quest for authorship would continue.

And so it has. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that it’s easier the second time around. Maybe the new genre helped, but my second short story was completed with considerably less agony, desperation and sleep loss. The story begins like this:

For me there are no “good old days.” I don’t look over my shoulder much as a rule. Once you’ve stared a troll or harpy in the eye—much less a dragon—memories are like old debts, best forgotten. But my tongue outruns me. There is something you should know about dragons.

One thing I’m debating is how to measure my growth as a writer. Thankfully there’s the empirical approach—how do my pieces fare in contests? But more difficult to gauge is one’s integral growth as a storyteller. Have I acquired a voice, a capability for story, that I didn’t possess two months, two weeks, a day ago?

One hopes, and, in the meantime, keeps typing.

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Will It Leave You New Or Ruined?

Recently I’ve been struck by the awfulness of light.

What I mean is, light is a discloser of secrets, an illuminator of dingy corners, a revealer of the deep, dark and hidden. Too much light, and the best among us stiffen, shake our heads warily, and intone with plastic smiles, “OK now, enough’s enough.”

Light appears in a variety of forms. For those of us living at home, there’s good old mom and dad. Their wattage registers, perhaps, at headlight level. At work there are coworkers and bosses—their level of insight generally doesn’t surpass flashlight power, but it’s still enough to shock. Then, more appalling, there’s the high-beam luminosity of intimate friendship, and, ultimately, marriage. How are we to deal with the levels of self-disclosure—and humbling self-awareness—such relationships require? I’d suggest that for many of us, the answer is simple. We don’t. How else to explain the culture of “serial monogamy,” “serial relationships,” even “serial friendships”—that characterizes us as people?

In “light” of all this, how ought we to consider really stunning brilliance—as in Paul’s fiery encounter on the Damascus road—radiance strong enough to reveal the heart’s raw secrets and burn us with its heat? Such a sun-like inferno would have the ability to both give life and take it, catalyze dramatic change or leave a burned-out husk. The outcome would be dependent upon our reaction. But no one could label such a light-source as “irrelevant,” “trivial,” or “small.” Dangerous? Of course. Destructive? Perhaps. Defining? Surely.

Such a light-source would be potentially two things: a universal magnet or a cosmic stigma. How would we determine which? To see one’s heart under a flashbulb, exposed in shadowless clarity, naked at noon, might be a horrifying experience. Conversely, who can fully apprehend the benefits of authenticity—a divorce from sham-life, a return to “dearest freshness, deep down things…”—and bona fide personhood. Overwhelming light would leave one either ruined or new. Which outcome?

Only those who approached the sun could answer the question. Such a source of light is Christ.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A New Arrival

Over the last week, we've experienced a new addition to our little household. Lindsay and I, having been a couple for several years now, have greeted the new arrival with joy as well as with all the hesitancy that accompanies these forays into the unknown.

A couple days ago, Lindsay was chilling on the futon when all of a sudden she started laughing out loud. I looked up from the kitchen, where I was puttering industriously (cooking dinner and washing the dishes, as I recall), and she called me over, pointing in excitement.

"Look at him! It looks like he's studying the painting, just staring at it quietly. He's just sitting there, appreciating it!"

And indeed, so it appeared.

Maybe it's time for us to have children.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Feel of Life

© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

What's the Texture of Your Existence?

There’s something I like about the “feel” of life. And it can’t be the pure ecstasy of it. Life’s not like a draught of bubbly champagne. It’s not even like a drink of clear, cold spring water. No, it’s more like a sip from relatively murky puddle with floating grass and dirt-specks.

But that’s the feel of life—rough, even raw. Sometimes abrasive. You grab life by the horns and bleed on the rough edges. You can’t sleep on life. It’s too real.

You walk along for awhile, then life shoots you an elbow in the eye and trips you up. You get back up, and awhile later life throws you again and kicks you in the teeth for good measure. So you get back up, ready for the next onslaught, because if you don’t, something worse might get you while you’re down. The bull may gore you. The semi-truck might nail you. You might go over the falls. Because that’s another fact about life—it keeps moving. And the only answer is to try and keep up.

Life is a yard stick, a measuring rod, passing implicit judgment on us all, even if we try and opt out.
We can’t get away.

The tone of my description may come off as down-and-out or pessimistic (or maybe just clichéd and stupid), but that’s not where I’m coming from. Thankfully, some of the swift currents of life are pleasurable, pulling us toward something greater, unseen. And miraculously, even painful breakdowns may somehow push us toward the same huge purpose…looming deep and wide, behind our every muttered “Why?” or silent “How?”

I credit God for the changeful, rough-hewn nature of this life. I can’t explain my experience in terms of biological units interacting with a chemical interface. That’s not sufficient. But life, despite its inscrutability, is a fittingly porous element for revelation. Through it Christ reveals the plot to those entrenched in the rough material of his unfolding story.

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Seems like I haven't posted a poem for awhile. Consider how the demands of ultimate reality persistently encroach upon the pragmatic science of "real life."

Once I left the city and I left the streets
and I found a crystal river lined with soaring trees.
I swam in the current and my soul was soaked
when a sudden light came nearer and I awoke.

Now I know that I’ve been dreaming,
I've awakened from my sleep,
but now I am amazed
at the pictures that I keep
before my face
without a trace
of hazy sleep.

I am awake
I am awake
I just can’t make
the pictures fade.

© 2004 Ariel Vanderhorst

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Simply Bitter

We live in downtown Kansas City, "da hood," right, where, as everyone knows, young prepstars and phenoms-in-the making hang out on the blacktop, ballin' 24-7. But apparently there are no budding hoopsters in our apartment complex, where I've had this note posted in the entry hall for the last three months. No responses. Sigh.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

Diary of a Country Priest - George Bernanos, A

A Flash Review: Genuine, Wistful Religion

The Diary of a Country Priest - George Bernanos, A

It doesn’t sound like a blockbuster (and it doesn’t read like a screen play), but what a breath of fresh air. Originally published in French, this book is a psychological masterpiece, and classic enough to survive translation. It brought to mind the flavor of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov, or the lucid, disarming self-awareness of Montaigne…but published originally in 1937.

In the words of The New York Times Book Review, “It is a strange and sad, yet a beautiful and compelling story.” Bittersweet indeed. A modern masterpiece. (And I’m not Catholic.) If you do consider reading this book, which you should, be prepared for somewhat challenging dialogue. (There are some passages you’ll need to read twice.)

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A BitterSweet Manifesto::3

The Certainty of Pain

Well, back to the Manifesto. In a sense, this third point completes the "syllogism" I've been building, implementing an equation for bittersweet living. (More points are really unecessary; fewer would leave the equation incomplete.) I'm not discounting additonal discussion, but everything essential is here. In its essence, BitterSweetness is a principle as simple as it is revealing. So without more ado, here we go.

(If you haven't read the first couple "articles," go here first. Otherwise, read on, brave traveler.)

::3: Study suffering.
Article 2 covered the Sweet. Now we turn to the Bitter. On first glance, it might seem that my generation has this one covered. Among us you'll find professing "realists," non-confessing pessimists, and chronic gripers (not to mention habitual whiners). But despite all this, we fundamentally fail to really deal with suffering. Perhaps our relationship with it is too shallow. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. At any rate, the answers that we often give—"Life sucks," "‘Things’ will get better," a muttered "I hear you," an awkward silence—are clearly inadequate.

We hover between bleak depression and naive optimism. At the very least, this Bitter side of life deserves an honest examination. What are we to make of "meaningless" pain? Why does distress so often infringe on joy? And conversely, how shall we explain joy's strange "intrusions" into heartache? Strangely, the two aren't often separate, and BitterSweetness inevitably appears.

Well, there it is... I leave you with a triune approach to a bittersweet life:

::3: Study suffering.

Drop any one "precept," and we risk incoherence. Life is all sunshine? Never for very long. Life is "one long struggle in the dark?" (Lucretius). Not without rays of wonder. And we'll never grasp the essence of this phenomenon without querying our experience. Indeed, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Why? Because we may miss the very revelation "life" is meant to impart.

When grasped by an inquiring mind, BitterSweetness is a good tool for the road.

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

Note To Self

Re: Sunday ("...and on the seventh day...")

I’m thinking I want to look deeper into this “day of rest” concept. My weekly need for rejuvenation is undeniable. Today was somewhat restful, but not extremely. I took a quasi-nap for about 20 minutes. (Translation: I lay on our futon and fantasized about taking a nap.) I played a leisurely game of scrabble with Lindsay, winning by a mere 3 points. And I spent a good 30-40 minutes reading my Bible with a cup of coffee. All these pastimes were soporific, but the day was not without its drudgery and unnerving moments.

One of the latter came when Lindsay openly defied my authority as head of the household, foraging through my walk-in closet for a bag of Caramellos™ she knew I had stuffed in there months ago. When I caught her, it was already too late; the process of chocolate inhalation had begun, and I was forced to keep pace or lose all say in the matter. But as I was saying… a “day of rest.” This is an idea that certainly needs to be explored.

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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Sweet Irony

We interrupt the BitterSweet Manifesto saga to bring you breaking news. A few days ago I received this email. It's hard to imagine irony any better-conceived.

Congratulations Ariel! Members of United Universists, the global freethought movement, have selected your site as an excellent Faithless Site! The Faithless Site Awards are presented to carefully selected websites that proudly demonstrate secularism, pluralism, empiricism, and eschew religious faith as a valid worldview.The forces of religion have successfully made "faithless" a dirty word in today's society. We are fighting back. We will wear the badge with pride...
With Reason, United Universists. (emphasis mine)

Heh heh. I'm trying to picture the various scenarios that could explain this turn of events. Did someone with a devilish sense of humor nominate BitterSweetLife to Faithless? Did some hardened atheist stumble across this blog, feel "existential" longings well up inside him, and in an act of covert defiance, rebelliously place my site on the list? Maybe Faithless should just fire their search committee for unfaithfulne—uh, negligence. Regardless, someone had better warn them before they unknowingly undermine the un-faith of their flock.

If I start getting ip referrals from their website, I'll know the subversion has begun. How funny would that be?

Ah hah hah hah hah! (evil laughter)

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Friday, October 08, 2004

A BitterSweet Manifesto::2

The Centrality of Joy

Here's the next development in my emerging BitterSweet ethos. If you missed "article 1," and wonder what I'm talking about, you may want to read this first. For the rest of you, here we go.

::2: Embrace pleasure. If this sounds like hedonism, it is. But it's hedonism in its purest and only justifiable form. A "BitterSweeter" sees joy not as a distraction to be avoided, nor as sentimentality to be sneered at, nor as an evolving emotional "commodity" to be handled with care. Rather, joy is a necessity to be embraced. And a person on this path values pleasure so highly that it must be undiluted, that is, true. He sees joy for what it is, and rejects all substitutes as "dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers" (C.S. Lewis).

A principled pursuit of real happiness and, therefore, a moderated "skepticism" about apparent fulfillment, is central to BitterSweetness. As Lewis says, "I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy." Joy* is what we are ultimately after, and genuine pleasures are within our reach—if we know their source. This is the Sweet.

* I've used "joy" and "pleasure" interchangeably in this post, but there is much to be gained from a more nuanced perspective, as suggested by the second Lewis quote. Hopefully I'll be able to write about this at a later date.

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

A BitterSweet Manifesto::1

Walking the Talk

I talk a lot about life's BitterSweetness, but mostly in terms of allusion. I say, "Time has a bittersweet quality," or "Guess how sorrow and joy converged today?" But if BitterSweetness is as inescapable as I make it out to be, shouldn't we be proactive? I mean, wouldn't this phenomenon have implications for living—not merely referential, but operative? I think it would.

Here are a few thoughts to get us started, some guidelines for the BitterSweet life. But to avoid overwhelming the blog with a 24-point outline, I'll be posting my thoughts one "article" at a time. So pull on your battered thinking caps and precede at your leisure. Here's the first:

::1: Ask hard questions of life.
And sooner rather than later. Ingrained in the bittersweet ethos is an impulse to account for both good and evil, darkness and light. There's no use in barricading ourselves off from apparent mysteries, paradoxes, puzzles or contradictions—often, the heart of bittersweetness lies in such places. So be an persistent interrogator on every consequential front. Consider, for example, spirituality (Is the soul eternal?), ethics (What is the morality of cloning?), and, inevitably, personal decisions (Should I break up with my boyfriend?).

Don't be naive about truth and consequences. We're in this game for more than laughs. Ultimately, realize that all questions—and answers—have spiritual ramifications, determined by how you answer—or ignore—life's first order questions. Who am I? Where am I from? Why am I here? As Einstein queried, "Is the world a friendly or unfriendly place?" These inquiries
refuse to remain shelved.

Update: Jump to "article 2."

If you're wondering why bittersweetness is a good thing, or if it's really a discernible phenomenon, I refer you to the "must read" posts on the sidebar.

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That's the sound of deep exhalation. This morning I successfully aced quizzes in both my "at-risk" classes. This gives me moral justification to start developing a post I've wanted to write for weeks. Coming soon: A BitterSweet Manifesto.

BTW, there's something I've been wondering about. Let's say you're skimming BitterSweetLife when you come across a more lengthy post - one that forces you to scroll down several paragraphs in order to finish. Does this cause you to:

1) Spill coffee on yourself in your haste to "scroll down already!" and ingest the life changing message. 2) Marvel at the author's incredible verbosity. 3) Pause, consider for a millisecond, then scroll down reluctantly. 4) Shake your head and close out the window in disgust.

I'd love some feedback since my posts are occasionally...prolongedly profound. Or something.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Visual Therapy

A few gratuitious Rocky Mountain pictures never hurt anyone.

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Mountain Fencerow

With a little green aspen.

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Hope Deferred

This doesn't quite make up for not hiking the Rockies this year.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Humble Assertion

Today I woke up.

I felt a small, hard center coalesce inside me. My eyes flared to life, steel-blue conduits to a ready brain. My mind stirred and shook itself. The waking sensation felt like humility—an unassuming desire to work hard, apply myself unreservedly, “concentrate on doing your best” (2 Timothy 2:15). It also felt like taking my future in my hands.

Does that seem contradictory? It’s not. For at times God hands us the future. He gives us a divine trajectory and says, “Run.” He gives us a glimpse of His will and sends us to pursue it. At such times we had better lift and train and learn to run. Was any life more active and forceful—and more surrendered—than Christ’s?

So humility emerges, and it’s strangely shaped. Today’s humility: It’s waking up to the need of the moment, the demand for work, hard work and precision, taking up responsibility for my own improvement—as per divine allotment. God works on me, and I work too. How could I do less?

For God expects his people to fight hard and not to coast. He looks for grace-full effort. Less is unacceptable. Better is impossible. So yes, I will work harder, learn better, Jesus—it’s what you ask. This burden of work is one the humble accept and the proud refuse.

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Scattered Thoughts

Cameo by Lindsay.

Sometimes I wake up and think Today I will write the definitive short story that will launch my writing career. Then I roll out of bed, grab my coffee, drive to school, soak up my classes, read my 4-5 assigned texts for the day, pick my wife up from work, engage her in congenial conversation, arrive home, hit the books, write an assigned essay, and realize... I guess this won't be the day.

A little bombshell fell at school today. Two of my classes are with the same professor, and this morning he posted grades-to-date. Upon scanning the listings, my cheerful nonchalance turned to bafflement. And for good reason. Upon interrogation, my professor blithely confirmed that 95% is the cutoff point for "A" work in his classes. Oh.

All of which goes to say, now I'll really have to kick it. Have the days of carefree blogging come to and end? Only time will tell.

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Sunday, October 03, 2004

Shadows of Fall

I have the feeling this Autumn will be especially Bittersweet.

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Antarcticans Please Apply

In the interests of multiculturalism, I was examining my site stats, broken down by global region. I was pleased to see fairly strong representation by a variety of nations. Europeans and Australians seem to have a particularly strong fascination with BitterSweetLife, and South Americans and Asians don't lag too far behind.

Of course, the most avid readers of the blog are North Americans, but that's to be expected, given my phenomenal insight into my native culture. However, I was saddened to see that the blog has yet to catch on in Africa and Antarctica. In fact, so far as I know, I have yet to attract a single Antarctican reader. Clearly, BitterSweetLife must be missing some key aspect. The blog will not be complete until it is reaching readers in all continents. Any suggestions?

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The Grind Resumes

Well, I'm home. And I'm not complaining. New resolve has flowed into my mind and filled my carpal tendons. I have decided not to abandon my writing endeavors for a career in European professional basketball. Instead I'll keep writing, keep submitting, and keep thrilling you longsuffering readers with bittersweet notes on life.

The drive out to the retreat center was a little vacation in itself. We saw gold-brown fields sandwiched between stands of blue pine. Unfortunately, the beauty of the road-side was obscured by trash. The sky was a similar anomaly. Which made me think:

Sunlight perforating clouds
Radiance dissolving shrouds
Scorching sky
Behind fuel station signs
And power lines
Beauty wracks an ugly world.

Ah, the inexorable nature of beauty. That's something worth writing about.

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Friday, October 01, 2004

Noise At All Costs

Still-o-phobia: The Fear of Silences

What's it gonna take
to slow us down
to let the silence spin us around?
- Switchfoot, The Beautiful Letdown

In a few hours I'll be leaving urban Kansas City, my frenzied studies, our loft apartment, and this blog behind. My departure is not motivated by pent-up grief or self-reproach over my failure to place in the WORLDview Fiction Contest. (That's merely a good secondary reason.) Rather, I'm going on a retreat. I'm heading for the woods, a small cabin, and contemplative quiet.

However, as I anticipate the approaching get-away, occasionally glancing out the window, there's more on my mind than the thunderclouds forming overhead. For better or worse, synapses are firing; I'm thinking about connections, things related to the retreat, things that beg to be thought about, things like silence.

As a culture, why do we have such a big problem with silence? In Finding Focus in a Whirlwind, Jean Fleming observes,

We have become a people with an aversion to quiet and an uneasiness with being alone.

A cursory look at our lives seems enough to affirm the assertion. Our "media" players proliferate daily, as do our forms of media to play. With so many channels to choose from, a lot of our time is spent just sorting the options. Jump in the car, slump at the computer, pump a little iron - and the question of noise isn't "whether" but "which?" Which station? Which channel? Which genre? Which artist?

I wonder why we shun silence.

Surely our entertainment-driven culture is part of it. But beyond that, there must be an explanation for the way we seem to religiously avoid opportunities for quiet and reflection. What is it?

Most likely we're leery of what we might find. After all, in moments of quiet, what emerges? What comes to the surface? Arguably, it's often something brutally honest, something uncomfortable, something about us: revealed truth.

Truth tends to surface in silence. It's only the continuous hubbub and clatter of our lives that keep it at bay. I sometimes suspect we prefer it that way. In the words of C.H. Spurgeon:

Few men truly know themselves as they really are. Most people have seen themselves in a looking glass, but there is another looking glass, which gives true reflections, into which few men look.

A mirror named truth?

All of this goes to say that leaving on a retreat—pursuing soul-quiet, whether for a weekend or a moment—is a counter-cultural move these days. And one with much greater implications than a little R&R. Penetrating questions stalk us in the stillness.

To be or not to be? To believe or to reject? (Or, more pertinent for me, To write or not to write?)

Issues like these can only be addressed in moments of quiet. But I hear the radio crackling again. I guess the storm has blown over.

Which means now I can end this post and carry on with life's more pressing questions.

Like which station should I listen to?

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife