2016: Attention & Definition

photo by Stephanie Yu
Full disclosure: this picture of Jack is only here to draw people into reading this post. Photo by Stephanie Yu
The new year is here (and somehow we’re already nearly two weeks in) and I’m happy to report that with it I have resolutions I wish to share here on the blog. But first: creating resolutions (not to mention keeping them) has never really been my thing. This has likely been more out of laziness than some heroically intelligent critique upon the efficacy and/or relevancy of making New Year’s resolutions. The way I see it, the fact that I’ve taken the time to come up with these goals for 2016 is reason enough for mentioning them here. Here they are:

  1. blog weekly
  2. read 3-4 books a month
  3. limit myself to a maximum of 15 leisure minutes on my smartphone each day.

OK, maybe these seem ambitious. Or strange. The smartphone one is certainly strange. But I promise, they don’t come out of nowhere. How these goals came about stems from an activity that a group of friends and I have been participating in since 2012. The idea is to come to New Year’s eve having prayed, thought, and readied oneself to present two words to the group. The words are to be like signs or themes for the year to come. They ought to shape what one hopes the year will hold, and therefore lead the way into the new year.

Last year (2015), my words were Surrender and Peace. I’ll be sharing more about these words and how well they actually did shape my 2015 later. For this year, I shared that my words will be: Attention and Definition. And from these I’ve decided I’ll measure how well I’ve kept my words by assessing how well I’ve kept my goals.

So why Attention and Definition?

Attention. I have to admit, I’m very aware of how distracted I am by my phone. How’s that for irony? No other “thing” consumes more of my downtime than my phone. And to make it worse, my phone even consumes my uptime, like when I’m driving, when I’m shopping for food, or when I’m at lunch with friends. Gone are the days when standing in line means looking at pictures on the wall or (God forbid!) talking to the person next to me. I don’t even have to be bored anymore. Nor do I have to sit with my thoughts, or my emotions. Many of my waking moments, whether filled by activity or not, go accompanied by the blue glow of my phone.

I believe God put “Attention” on my mind when I asked for words for 2016. But I also believe my conscience and my desire to be more present among others did too.

Definition. The way this came to mind was less formal than “attention”. By that I mean, “definition” came to mind like coming up with an answer after pondering a question. After several minutes of mining my heart and mind, it was there. Truth be told, I’m not sure why it’s a word I came upon. Maybe it’ll mean defining my occupation more? Or defining my writing voice more? Or my faith? Or all of the above. Regardless, I know I can use it like a tool to help me craft my year, so I’m going to go with it.

Back to my goals (blogging, reading, & less phone): they’re not the holy grail. I’m not going to judge myself if I don’t follow through with them perfectly. But with many goals I’ve made in my life, I intend to fulfill them. Meaning I hope they happen, and I hope I can report the benefits that aiming for them has reaped this time next year.

And I look forward to more writing, reading, and engagement with what’s going on in the real world! I’m even planning to publish here about the books I read, the fiction and nonfiction I’m working on, the musings about faith I may be having, and ideas I think are worth sharing. This much you should expect.

So, here we go!

In The Beginning We Are Never The Same

A line of around one-hundred students stand shoulder to shoulder at the edge of a lawn, each holding a piece of paper. 

A teacher walks out in front.

“You should all have a number on your paper ranging from fourteen to negative twenty,” she says. “Right now, you’re all on the same line, but what we’re going to do next will teach you about social stratification.

The students shift their weight and shade their eyes from the sun. Some whisper to each other. Some look down the line to see how far it reaches. 

“First,” the teacher says, “who thinks they have the highest number.”

A boy on the left, toward the beginning of the line, raises his hand.

“What number?”

“Fourteen.”

“Okay, fourteen, you come here. Does anyone else have a number close to fourteen?”

A thirteen follows the fourteen out. Then: two twelves, two elevens, and four tens. 

The teacher has number fourteen stand at the front and groups each descending number in their own rows facing his back. 

Eight nines form a row behind the tens. Seven eights. Eight sevens. Nine sixes. Five fives. Seven fours. Four threes. Four twos. Ten ones. Six zeros. Four negative ones. Three negative twos. Three negative threes. Five negative fours. Four negative sevens. One negative ten. Two negative elevens. One negative nineteen. 

What once stood a line like the beginning of a footrace is a clump of uneven lines like a bell-curve standing on top of a mirror. 

“What do you notice?” The teacher says.

Two students speak at once. Then one student says, “we’re not on the same line anymore.” 

Some students snicker at this.

“Exactly,” the teacher says. “Now,” she says turning around and walking eighty or ninety feet in front of them. “If I were to tell you to race to me,” she shouts, “what would happen?”

The group is mostly silent.

The teacher walks back. 

“Is it possible that the fastest person could lose the race?”

“Yes,” some students say aloud.

“Why?”

“Because not everybody gets to start in the same place.”

“Did you hear that?” She calls to the crowd, her voice bouncing off the walls of neighboring buildings. “We don’t all get to start in an equal place. Now, let’s go back inside and talk about it.”

The crowd disperses.

To Belong

I didn’t wake up feeling anything out of the ordinary. As I took my dog outside, I wasn’t thinking that today I would be considering what it would be like to return to my home town; when I made a cup of coffee I wasn’t thinking that in an hour I’d be missing a critical community to my life from a year prior.

The yearning all began with an email, but more on that later.

image

Wanting to belong is a funny thing mostly because it is a misunderstood thing. These days, many people feel embarrassed to admit that they want to belong somewhere. To them, it might seem to communicate weakness, or an unhealthy dependency upon what someone else thinks. Because of this, many of us go through our lives trying to shirk or escape the appearance of this when in fact it might actually be a good thing to want to be accepted. It might be a good thing to want to belong somewhere.

I’ve spent around half of my life wanting to feel accepted in some way (I vaguely posted about this recently). In grade school it was for girls to notice. In junior high it was still for girls notice but also for friends who skateboarded to accept me too. In high school it was to be noticed by my teachers and to be accepted by my peers as a leader. In college it was for my girlfriend’s love and to impress my pastor by going to Bible college.

I am not naive, and so I know I am not the only person in the world with ulterior motives for making the decisions that I have. In fact, I can think of plenty of well-respected people who’ve decided to do something because they cared what another thought of them. As generic examples, a boss will praise an employee because she wants him to know he is doing a great job. A father will attend his son’s baseball games because he wants his boy to know he loves him. A wife will encourage her husband because she wants him to know she believes in what their family stands for. 

But, if desiring acceptance and wanting to belong somewhere is our highest motive (or the only), so much so that all other motives pale in comparison, then I think we have uncovered something actually unhealthy. 

If the only reason we show up is because of how it makes us feel, then we are stifling the meaning of acceptance. We are, in essence, making community into a one-sided game. If the only reason we come to church is to feel accepted, or if the only reason we show for Tuesday game night is so people will make us feel worth talking to, then we’re forgetting the needs of everyone else who have shown up too.

In an ideal world, everyone would show up in order to give, and it would be a beautiful surprise to also get to receive. 

This morning I received an email from my friends over at In The Vine Anglican church, a community that I would say I belonged to for the last six months that I lived in Orange County. I always like to read about what the church has been up to, but one specific announcement in this email caught my eye. It wasn’t anything astonishing, at least not to anyone who doesn’t know In The Vine. But to them, and to me, it was news worth rejoicing over. In The Vine has finally been able to secure a location in downtown Fullerton, which is something they’ve wanted and have heard God pointing them toward since their beginning over a year ago. 

I felt a rush go over me. Mostly, it was because I was happy for my former community. No more moving chairs and tearing down backdrops after the service! 

Then, I felt something else. I began to feel lonely. I started missing all of the friends I’d made there and all of the ceremonies and traditions I’d grown to cherish. This second feeling made me think about what it was that I was missing the most. After typing out some thoughts it started to surface: 

I was missing the feeling of belonging. Specifically, I was missing the feeling of belonging to In The Vine. No church is perfect, but at this one I was given a chance to share my story and to learn other’s stories as well. In my mind, no amount of realigning chairs or handing out pamphlets can compare to knowing another person’s life. When a church can offer you that—a setting that is actually hard not to be known in—then I think a rich journey of belonging can begin. 

What I Desire

[This is Edward James Olmos, not Alan Watts. If you’ve seen this movie, then you probably already know why I posted this picture]

Last week I posted a voice-over of Alan Watts thinking out loud about what it might look like for someone to do what they desire. He says thinks like: What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like? 

Shortly I after I posted this a friend called me out. He said, “so, let’s have it, Aaron. What do you desire? What makes you itch?”

I should have known. 

First of all, learning to answer that question has never been easy. I used to say I desired things like a community house like The Simply Way, or that I desired to live incarnationaly toward those I lived amongst. But what I was really saying was that I wanted to live as such. My desires were instead for community, acceptance, and justification for a faith I wanted to believe so ardently in. 

I’m not a philosopher, but here’s what I think about desire.

Desires evolve. They change, but they are also interconnected. They are all in some way loosely attached to something deep inside of us, like telephone poles that string our minds, hearts, and souls together, like connecting small towns with one another.

Desires are not wants, however. They are related, but not the same.

They start small, as most desires do. As babies, for the vast majority of us, all we desire is comfort (though we don’t know we do). It is innate, and natural. Life is bright, cold, wet, and our stomachs hurt. We don’t know that we want to satisfy our hunger, or that we want a blanket to make us warm. We just know that presently things suck. We desire for life not to be so uncomfortable.

As toddlers and as small children some of our greatest desires might be for the affection and attention of our caretakers. We aren’t aware that we want our dad’s to nod, smile, and respond with something positive, or that we want our mother’s to hug, kiss, and feed us. All we know is that when we speak we like it when our parent’s respond.

For me, when I got into elementary school and in to junior high, I desired acceptance. I wanted girls to whisper about me, I wanted for the kids I played ball with to think I was the next Michael Jordan, and I wanted my skateboarding friends to think I was something unprecedented. More than anything though, I wanted to be someone that made other people say, “wow, that guy does it different, and he does it really, really well.”

In high school I desired at least two things. First, I still desired acceptance. I still wanted my friends to think I was funny, and my teachers to think I was genuinely trying. Second, I desired respect. I wanted, for the first time in my life, for people to listen to what I had to say, and I when I became a captain of my cross country team, I wanted younger runners to want to follow me.

In college it was the desire to be loved and then the desire to find ways to give my love away. This meant, if I could manage to get my friends, my college pastor, and my girlfriend to love me by wanting for myself the things they thought were worthwhile dreams, then I would do them. So I wanted to learn to teach high school English, I wanted to become a pastor, and I wanted to get a working-stiff job doing whatever so that I could begin to provide for the girl I intended to make my wife. But giving my love away felt right too, so at the same time, I found ways to get involved with feeding homeless people. I learned how to fix tattered homes for folks with no money. I leant a thousand ears and hearts to people who needed someone to listen. I always wanted to be the guy who people knew would listen.

Desires evolve because they are all in some way loosely attached to something deep inside of us. 

Since college my desires have continued to shift. But in doing so, I am starting to see them converge with each other more and more.  For example, my desire for a healthy and creative form of expression is manifest in my want to be a writer. At the same time, my college-borne desire to give love away, met with wanting to be a writer, causes me to want to ask serious questions about how I might write in a way that gives love away.

So, if it all came down to answering the question, perhaps my response will leave you underwhelmed. My desires over the years always seem to come back to people. People have always been within my desires, whether the want has been to be loved by, to create community with, to host for, to receive from, or like today, to tell stories of.

I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you desire, and even, what do you want? Feel free to respond here, on your blog, on Facebook, and be sure to tag me!

Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you… You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Words of Others: Cormac McCarthy

Image taken from cormacmccarthy.com

I read No Country for Old Men three years ago and loved it, hard as it was to get used to. I’d unfortunately seen the movie prior to reading the novel so the images in my mind were fairly unoriginal. Ever since then, though, I told myself I would read another McCarthy. I made a mental note and I left it somewhere on my bookshelves…

Then, three months ago I moved to Los Angeles. I don’t own a whole lot, but I did wind up bringing five or six boxes of books with me. The boxes sat in my living room for weeks, as tends to be my style. When I finally got to pulling them out and setting them up I found McCarthy’s The Roadwhich a friend picked up for me the last time he was visiting from Portland. He said he liked the idea of investing into young writers. He said it would all pay off one day. Okay, B.D., thanks, I said. I’ll try not to let you down, but I think you’re dropping bills into the wrong industry stream.

Inspired by the allure of being in a new place, I blew the imaginary dust off the cover, sat against my wall, books strewn about my legs, and started in.

And… I quickly re-learned how tough McCarthy’s style can be to get used to. He sort of invents his own genre. In The Road he borders between minimalist and stream-of-conscious, which at the very least means his dialogue can be challenging to decipher from his character’s internal thoughts. His punctuation is light, comprised of mostly periods and a few commas, but he never uses quotation marks nor semi-colons. He is a rogue, but all the greatest were weren’t they?

I bring McCarthy to the table today simply to point out the uniqueness of his literary voice. He is fearless, and even in a TV interview with Oprah he admits that, as he begins his novels, he almost never knows where they are leading nor how they will end.

In reading up on his life I’ve begun to get the impression that he may know everything there is to know about writing (quickly: he’s been writing for over four decades and has won a slough of prestigious awards) but doesn’t believe the rules are the only thing he must follow in his craft.

I’m no expert on writing, in fact I’m a far cry. But I get that. I get what it feels like to start in on something and have no idea where it is going to lead. I don’t know if McCarthy is a God-fearing man, but from reading him I’ve woken to the thought of how critical trusting my God-inspired gut ought to be. Not in a “crap man, I’m a basket-case. I suck. I don’t trust God enough” kind of moralistic way. Honestly, I think to have that perception of the self as a Christian is completely misinformed. It is bullshit, really. Instead, I believe trusting my gut looks more like being amazed and invigorated by mysteries. I think that if I step out in my writing career to try something new there is a chance I could fall deep into a hole. But I might not. I might just keep walking forward, believing that whether chasm or cleared-path, something believes in me too.

I’ve typed out one of my favorite passages from The Road below. Hope you love it.

He had to drag the cart while the boy steered from behind and they build a fire for the old man to warm himself though he didn’t much like that either. They ate and the old man sat wrapped in his solitary quilt and gripped his spoon like a child. They had only two cups and he drank his coffee from the bowl he’d eaten from, his thumbs hooked over the rim. Sitting like a starved and threadbare buddha, staring into the coals.

You can’t go with us, you know, the man said.

He nodded.

How long have you been on the road?

I was always on the road. You cant stay in one place.

How do you live?

I just keep going. I knew this was coming.

You knew it was coming?

Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.

Did you try to get ready for it?

No. What would you do?

I don’t know.

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.

I guess not.

Even if you knew what to do you wouldnt know what to do. You wouldnt know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?

Do you wish you would die?

No. But I might wish I had died. When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.

Or you might wish you’d never been born.

Well. Beggars cant be choosers.

You think that would be asking too much.

What’s done is done. Anyway, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.

I guess so.

Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. He lifted his head and looked across the fire at the boy. Then he looked at the man. The man could see his small eyes watching him in the firelight. God knows what those eyes saw.

A Piece Worth Reading

I wrote a brief personal assessment of 2012 two days ago. Very brief, in fact. As I re-read it I could see Don Miller all across the page.

Yeah, yeah. I am aware that every mid-to-late twenty-something male interested in writing poetry and reading the classics, who has (or is) at one point been jaded with the church but is still convinced of his necessity to be devoted to God, wants also to be Don Miller.

The truth is that there can only be one Don, but there will always be room for new voices. Even if these voices echo those from ages ago, or even a few years ago, we need to be awoken into life daily. This is why we write. No?

Anyway, like I said, as I re-read my personal assessment, I thought: I can write a “Don Miller” book. I’ll get a ton of flack for it, just like Don, because there will always be somebody to nitpick and point out theological, grammatical, or personal inconsistencies. But whatever. For every nitpicker, there will always be five people who might find encouragement.

I have always wanted to write a book. Books even. I intend to with my life. Writing a “Don Miller” book is probably a good place to start because they are autobiographical in nature, lighthearted in prose, and yet still heavy enough to inspire (though as I write this I am completely aware of my naivety–surely Don took months, if not years to mull things over). I think I might have something to say though, just like Don did. The big question is: what in the world would I write?

Don wrote Blue Like Jazz almost completely around a series of interactions and conversations with a couple handfuls of people at Reed. The entire book is brought up around those relationships. Thus, I have been working through the following question: what unique, powerful relationships do I have, and why would anybody want to read about them? I’ll let you know what I come up with!