Parable

Warm lights and soft smiles waltz in these halls tonight,

Remembering the ghosts of revelers past:

Dim figures who embrace each other

Tightly, lightly, as they circle spritely,

Spin, and flash in pairs.


A melancholy settles like a fine dust

On the finery fading year after year

And moments not recalled, yet embalmed

In reels found, unwound, filled with sounds

Of mirth, and wit wasted.


The dancers’ presence lights up the vibrant hall,

With merriment and movement free of memory,

Technicolor dreamers, sad for those

Who depart, dart, straight to our hearts, yet

Laughing since they lived, and will again.

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Queen Spider: An Apocryphal Anecdote

‘Tis said that her majesty Queen Elizabeth I of England was taking a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her chief advisers. As they often did, these men were urging her majesty to wed. The Queen merely brushed off their concerns like flies. At length, one of the men demanded of her outright:

“But why will her majesty not marry?  Surely a husband would be of great use to her majesty.”

Elizabeth walked a few more paces, then stopped near the branches of a small tree. She gestured to two thin twigs. Woven between them was a large web, in the middle of which sat a huge spider.

“How many spiders do you see on this web?”  she asked.

“Only one,” replied the advisers, puzzled.

“I am like this spider,” said the Queen. “As she rests in the center of her kingdom, perfectly capable of snaring her own prey and feeding herself, so am I. See how she dexterously maneuvers herself from one thread to another; a mate would only get in her way.”

One of the advisers spoke up: “And yet, your majesty, the spider needs that mate to produce offspring.”

“True,” said Elizabeth, “and when he has fulfilled his part, the female spider will entrap and eat him, as if he were no more than the customary fly. I would not wish such a fate on any man.”  Then, smiling, she calmly took her leave of her councilmen, whom afterward never did press the issue of marriage quite so enthusiastically.

Goodbye & Hello

 

Pen poised over paper,

I hesitate.

About to begin

No—wait!

Oops.  Too late.

Cross that out.

Let’s start again.

 

Hello, old friend.

How have you been?

I saw you just yesterday,

But you look so different

Today.  And who is this?

Oh, your sister?

I don’t believe we’ve met.

 

Hello, how nice to meet you.

(Maybe we can be friends,

But time will tell).

What’s your name?

“Two Thousand Nineteen.”

(Well…that’s unique.)

What an interesting name!

 

You know them too?

Oh, that’s so neat!

And her and him?

What a small world.

Do you have any other siblings?

Several thousand?  Well.  That’s a lot.

I have only three.

 

I need to go, but nice to meet you.

Oh, yes, I know.

Another time…

Oh, no.

Not again.

Wait!  What’s your name?

Too late.

 

Pen over paper

Begins to scrawl.

I think on old friends.

No!  Wrong again.

Ugh.  How frustrating.

Another paper and 364 more days

To get this right.

 

Goodbye, old friend.

Hello, new stranger.

You may have to tell me your name

A few times more.

But I will get it right.

Eventually.  With perhaps

A few relapses.

The Condescension of God

One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.

At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.

Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)

Merry Christmas!


My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience -Wang Yi

Review: Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life

Inspirational or motivational books often put their promises in their title: Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Big Thinking, The Power of Positive Thinking, What it Takes to be #1. Why not judge these books by how well they deliver on their promise? For Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons From an Extraordinary Life, Louis Zamperini’s last book (co-authored by David Rensin), the question is: does Zamperini have any worthwhile lessons to impart? While some of the lessons outlined in the titles of each chapter are hackneyed, the stories are interesting, and the reader can learn lessons simply by listening to Zamperini tell of both his successes and failures.

That Zamperini’s life was extraordinary is beyond doubt. An Olympic-level runner who was widely thought to be likely to be the first athlete to run a 4 minute mile, Zamperini’s life took a different turn when the U.S. joined World War II and he became a member of a B-24 flight crew that was eventually shot down in the Pacific. But instead of dying, Zamperini, along with Captain Russell Phillips, survived on a raft for over a month with nothing more than a flare gun, some candy bars, and some other basic survival gear. Captured by the Japanese and imprisoned, Zamperini survived and eventually returned home, to the great surprise of everyone. But the most significant changes took place in Zamperini’s life after his rescue: following an onset of PTSD and a growing dependency on alcohol, Zamperini’s wife convinced him to attend a Billy Graham crusade, and he eventually committed his life to the Lord. He never drank again, and he devoted his life from then on to helping at-risk children find purpose—and adventure.

Some of the “lessons” in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, have a cheesy ring to them—chapter titles such as “You Need a Cloud to Have a Silver Lining,” “Don’t Ask Why, Ask What’s Next,” give an idea of some of the trite lessons drawn from what would otherwise just be an interesting story. Other chapters, such as one that includes a story of getting a kiss from Angelina Jolie (one of his friends), seem more like opportunities for Zamperini to reminisce, but that’s a forgivable flaw in someone who lived such a colorful and interesting life.

Other vignettes, however, are moving. One story in particular stands out—where Zamperini begins training to run again, and works hard at it for over six weeks. At the end of the month, he has his wife time his laps, and discovers that he is much slower than before. This forces him to accept that he will never recover his running ability—it’s time for him to find another path. Several other stories stood out to me from his post-war life as well: a giant boat trip, business ventures, and other escapades as he tried to find a calling.

Overall, this was a really quick, interesting book that gave some solid, if not revolutionary or cohesive, advice on how to live well. Living actively to the age of 97 and packing a second book with more tales, Zamperini certainly knew how to live well.

Ode to the Ornaments (on the Back of the Tree)

One far off eve, when I am ridiculously rich,
With oodles of ballrooms to spare,
My Christmas tree shall center of the room,
With pretty ornaments every which-where

But today, well, this isn’t the case,
And square footage comes with a fee,
So I push those branches into a corner,
And hang…certain…ornaments on the back of the tree

I wouldn’t keep them, of course, if I didn’t have
On some level a bond, a fond feeling,
But, aesthetics, aesthetics, judging books and covers
I could say I didn’t care – but then, I’d be dreaming

So my one-year-old bear, with the pacifier,
And that red-headed angel who’s lacking in grace,
They both reside on the back of the tree
Doing their part, filling in empty space

With them are the globes with the gingerbread men,
Which I don’t like as much as the floral ones,
And a draping lace fan that’s been misshapen
But whose part in my tree isn’t quite done

And there, at the top back, high, near the star
A smiling bear once of no value to me
But when he cracked, Mom glued him together
And though I put him at the back, it’s where I just see

So, though I have ballrooms and parlors to spare,
The angel and gingerbreads will not go away
And there, very high, at the top of one tree
That bear, still smiling, will likewise stay

Christmas for All Ages

Just as Christmas is a story for the ages, I’ve noticed that the season we have named for Christ’s birth has yielded stories for all ages.  This year, I want to share the six latest Christmas books I have found, some of them Christian and others secular, but all beautiful and special in their own ways.

Christmas in the Barn

Christmas in the Barn / Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Anna Dewdney)—Brown takes liberties with the original story as she turns it into lyrical poetry, but I found the poetry simple and sweet.  This book would make a good read-aloud.  I think little children will enjoy Brown’s rendition of the story and the quirky animals in Dewdney’s oil illustrations.

The Birds' Christmas Carol

The Birds’ Christmas Carol / Kate Douglas Wiggin—This Christmas story has little to do with actual birds, which is what I went in expecting, most likely because of the cardinals and greenery on the paperback edition my family owns.  Instead, the story is about a little girl who is born on Christmastime and her family.  The Birds’ Christmas Carol is very touching and reminds me of Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street / Karina Yan Glaser—Christmas is only days away, but the Vanderbeekers are more focused on winning over their landlord so they can stay in their townhouse than anticipating Christmas gifts and surprises.  This is a fun children’s novel in the vein of All-of-a-Kind Family books, but with a modern setting.  At first, the book seems like an unconvincing imitation of Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays or similar series.  But as the story progresses, Yan Glaser finds her own voice and characters, and the book establishes its own place in children’s literature.

Christmas Fairy Tales

Christmas Fairy Tales / Selected by Neil Philip (illustrated by Isabelle Brent)—These twelve Christmas tales include new renditions of popular stories like “The Nutcracker” as well as a few I had never encountered before.  Overall, I liked the selection and retellings.  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Last Dream of the Old Oak” is especially beautiful, both in its illustrations and content.  (Note: The featured image for this article is one of Isabelle Brent’s illustrations.  Her artwork is beautiful and perfect for a collection of fairy tales with its delicate colors and style.)

The Mitford Snowmen and Esther’s Gift by Jan Karon—For fans of Mitford, these two Christmas short stories are sweet and mix the spirit of Christmas and Mitford in a cheerful combination.


Have you found any new Christmas books this year?  Or do you have any longtime favorites?  If so, I would love to hear about them in the comments below.

Hope in the Darkness

Since college, the last two months of each year have held a special place in my heart. Part of what has always made holidays helpful for me is how they offer the opportunity to derail from the train-track of everyday existence. By doing so, I can examine the road that has gotten me thus far in a way that is hard to accomplish amid the activities of daily life. Below is passage that I spent some time pondering this past week and found very helpful and timely given the Thanksgiving holiday:

“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.” Micah 7:8-9

Much like David in Psalm 51, the prophet expresses a hope seated firmly in the goodness and ability of the Lord. Amid his trials, Micah has no problem rectifying his own sinfulness with his status as God’s child -he knows he has committed evil, and with penitent heart submits to the discipline of his father, but all with the forward-looking hope that God will ultimately deliver him and Israel.

Life is easy to live in the weeds: to spend day after day slogging through the routine and grind without giving a thought to the “why’s” of life. Even if we know the hope of the gospel, sometimes darkness can descend: anxiety, depression, shame, recurring sin, broken relationships, broken bodies, and the thorns and thistles of life; however, even when we forget, Christ does not cease to reign. When we sin and wreck our lives, we can stand in hope, even as David and Micah did, knowing that our debt is paid, and deliverance will come. When life is hard and full of pain, we can cry out to God, trusting in his promises, as we remember the words of the Lord to Moses: “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex. 6:5).

The last two months of each year are a great time of rejoicing for some, and full of loneliness and hardship for others, but no matter which we are this year, or next, Christ remains unchanged: a deliverer of light on a cold and stormy sea.

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” Micah 7:18-20

How Victor Hugo Writes Transitions

Writing effective, natural transitions is difficult, as anyone who has ever written an essay, agonizing over how to move from “Firstly,” “Secondly,” “Thirdly,” and “In summary,” to more original expressions, knows.

So how does a classic writer approach paragraph transitions?

I am reading (slowly) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, right now – the 1976 Norman Denny translation – and think it is interesting how Hugo tackles transitions (aside: Norman Denny seems to have updated some of the English to be more readable to a modern audience, but cross-checking the below excerpt with Isabell Hapgood’s 1887 translation seems to confirm that the paragraph structures are still similar). Below is a passage, and alongside the passage I have explained my understanding of how the transitions function.

Hugo Transitions

What we see is that Hugo uses ideas to transition. The progression of thought between paragraphs is apparent—the topic or concluding sentence of the previous paragraph can be used as a springboard to guide the reader into the following thought (the topic of the current paragraph). Focusing on transitioning between not the bare words on the page but the underlying thoughts make the paragraphs blend together more naturally.

ebcosette

Addendum

This transitioning technique is on display in the quoted excerpt, but I also chose the passage because of Hugo’s insight here into the realities of being a thought-worker. My profession as a software developer is very much a thought-worker position. I do write, and there are real outcomes to the work, but unlike roofing a house or fixing a toilet, the real brunt of my profession is done in the mind. This is true of writers, scientists, and many other vocations in today’s society. As a result, this passage from Hugo – also a knowledge-worker (or “brain-worker” in Hapgood’s translation) – is apropos.

How I Cook These Days

Watching my Mom and me in the kitchen back in the day must have been quite the contrast: there was Mom, freestyling seasonings with utter abandon; and then there was me, obsessively devoted to adding precisely ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and not a particle more, because that was what the recipe said.

Well, here I am today, grown and out of the house, in my own kitchen, making my own food, just as I like it. And now it’s my turn to frustrate starry-eyed recipe requests with my inability and unwillingness to precisely measure ingredients, and my general penchant for going off book when it comes to recipes. So, whenever folks ask how to make my fish tacos – which, as they are pretty tasty (no false modesty here), most people do ask – I always convey my apologies for the vagueness of the list I send them.

Said recipe was originally from some unremembered website, which I visited one college weekend when boredom and my love of fish tacos collided. It’s mutated a bit over the years, as the result of various twists of fate. (For example, the use of “ground annatto” is only because I accidentally grabbed the wrong red powder at HEB one time, kicked myself, then read that it was used in Latin American cuisine, particularly in the Yucatán Peninsula, figured, eh, waste not want not, and it’ll probably taste all right, and then it did, so now I just use it all the time.)

However, the basic outline is still much the same, and I still refer to the original draft I wrote on a #10 envelope, which I did for reasons that are unfathomable to my current self. I think the envelope is stained with water, but can’t be sure, because admittedly there is a cocktail recipe scrawled on the other side.

Basically, you’ll need:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Your choice of fish for putting on the corn tortillas; I use frozen tilapia because it’s the cheapest, and I have anti-fishy-flavor friends who I only got to try the tacos by assuring them tilapia was basically flavorless; not to worry, you’re adding so much spice you don’t really need a fishy-flavored fish anyway.
  • Coleslaw, for putting on top of the fish. Also, surprisingly, on top of white rice, if you feel the urge to make that too.

For the corn tortillas:

  • Buy cheapest available at your choice of grocery store; mine is Kroger

For the fish:

  • Lots of paprika
  • Lots of cumin
  • Some chili powder
  • Lots of garlic powder
  • A little cayenne pepper
  • Some salt
  • Some regular pepper
  • Some ground annatto
  • Olive oil

Shake appropriate proportions of spices onto both sides of fish, then cook until done in olive oil. I generally chop the fish in half lengthwise after cooking, thus getting two tacos for every one fish.

For the coleslaw:

  • ¼ cup green onions (or less, if you’re using chives; I vaguely remembered my mom saying something about using less of dried stuff, and I just looked it up and it’s true)
  • ¼ cup cilantro, or more (roughly one bunch, although really I’ve yet to find the limit to the amount of cilantro I can add)
  • 3 tbsp mayo
  • 3 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 tsp-ish-I-usually-end-up-adding-more lime juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 garlic clove or equivalent jarred garlic

Mix all that together in a nice big bowl, then add one bag coleslaw cabbage ‘n’ carrot mix and combine. It doesn’t look like the mayo/sour cream mixture will be enough to coat it all, but trust me, it is. Speaking of mayo and sour cream, you may have to add a little more of each; it really shouldn’t taste predominantly like either; add more lime juice concurrently, until it tastes like it should. If you’ve had some version of fish tacos or are a general connoisseur of Tex-Mex, you probably know sort of what it should be like. If not, I cannot help you.

As mentioned, place this on top of the fish, which are on top of the corn tortillas, and then NOM NOM.