Smoke and Reflection


On my way to work this morning I came upon this view. Smoke from neighboring states’ wildfires has drifted into our mountain range and somewhat obscures the view. This haze has lingered for days, or has it been weeks? It reminds me of a roadtrip I took through the Great Smoky Mountains, where fog cloaked the peaks, not smoke. The mist was beautiful and mysterious but also inspired meditation. As the day warmed the fog eventually lifted. Here, the smoke continues to cling—a sticky, choking cloud. These Uintas should trade names with the range back East, because of all the literal smoke.

People talk of rising above the haze, finding clarity, a better view. People find a way to ascend—hike, horse, plane—or they hope for this veil to lift.

To see. To see, and to breathe.

The path isn’t clear all the time. The religious rely on their faith to nurture what they cannot see into knowledge; the spiritual also have a form of faith that guides them. The rest of humankind also believes in the goodness of others and desires improvement in themselves, but without any post-life motivation or incentive.

This is overly simplified: there are more than these three groups of people in the world, and there are definitely overlaps between these groups. Lives and attitudes and philosophies are so different. I accept this.

How do I assess the meaning in my life? What is my why?

Do I contemplate my purpose because of the smoke, or because of what the smoke obscures? Because I know the mountains are there, does this sustain my hope for better things? Does this motivate me to rise above the current smog?

What if I didn’t know what was hiding in the smoke, would my plan of action be to wait until it clears?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m being faithful, or just naïve.

A Book I’m Reading

I recently checked out an ebook called, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It has some really interesting ideas about unpredictability and causality. The author expounds on his theories about the Black Swan phenomenon, which I won’t dwell on here.

A few days ago, this quote caught my attention:

“He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors–though never the same error more than once–is more reliable than someone who has never made any.”

I don’t think the author’s calling Christ unreliable, at least if he knows Christ and sin the way Christ knows sin. I think Taleb statement works particularly well here because the Atonement accounts for all mistakes. Because Christ knows what it feels like to make them, he becomes the most reliable person that will ever exist.

Now if we separate Christ from the rest of mortality, I can understand being a little skeptical of a person who has never sinned. Taleb’s premise states that the fragilistas have little to gain because they fear making mistakes, and the ones they do make are huge and destructive and difficult to bounce back from. The antifragile don’t fear mistakes; they thrive on them, and the mistakes they make aren’t as big and they can make more of them. The more mistakes they make, the more they have to gain.

This is a little aspect of the book, but I like it not because it encourages me to make mistakes. It actually supports what I believe on a religious and spiritual basis: Even though I don’t go out of my way to make mistakes, I can rely on the Atonement when I do make them. He already knows all the lessons, and my sins can help me learn them. Taleb emphasizes that reliable people don’t make the same mistake more than once. This is repentance. If what I have to gain from the sins I commit is to become a better person and strengthen my relationship with Christ, that will in turn help me to become more reliable. However, because I won’t or can’t commit all the sins I can’t ever become as reliable as Christ. At least in my finite perspective. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be helpful to others. That doesn’t diminish any meaning or fulfillment my life should have.

Anyway, Antifragile presents some fun philosophy. I enjoy following the author’s thoughts as they wander. Antifragile is a good book because I can allow myself to disagree with some of the author’s ideas. While I haven’t formed full arguments yet, I quite enjoy the inner monologue. Certainly, this book offers a lot of unpredictability through its structure and ideas, and my quasi-formalistic mind can appreciate how the book’s form contributes to its function: As I stumble through ideas I haven’t thought about before, I find myself learning new things. Not necessarily because Taleb lays it all out in the open, but because what he does present helps me tinker the new things with what I already know. That experience alone holds a lot of potential.

That experience is so very easily practical, because we all know that we ought to try to make the best of what we can’t always predict. There’s only so much we can do to prepare. But if we can rely on true sources of strength and love and if we can thrive from volatile circumstances, then we phoenix our way out of any ambush, the ashes. Resurrect in more than one way.

Not sure why I’m reading a 500-page book to explain what I already know. Well, yes I do.

The Opening Line of an Email Today

A few drafts of entries hide, latent, outside the public’s purview. They discuss mostly my French experience in Africa, and I wanted to focus mostly on the African experience, the human experience, the life stuff beyond the school stuff.

It’s hard to separate the two realms: I spoke, read, and wrote French in Africa. We took tests and turned in papers in that language. I’d rather just forget the grades from my study abroad, because–although they’re not horrible–they don’t reflect the breadth of my experience there.

Somehow,  I was able to channel the spirit of the adventure–my reason for being there–and focus that energy into some of my schoolwork. And it resulted in the opening line of an email that made my day today:


Comment allez-vous?  Savez-vous que je vous ai donné un A pour votre projet anthropologique?  C’était magnifique, ce que vous aviez écrit.

So, I’m happy I did well on the anthropology project, which was about families. I enjoyed writing it; I appreciated being able to express some of the things I learned that were important to me.  I’ll push away the thought that I must have BUSTED on the exams to earn the overall grade. That thought is a little bit depressing.

One thing advanced French classes have taught me these past six months is that grades cannot define me. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve let it create doubt in my abilities as a student, a scholar, a writer. I’ve let it “degrade” me (sorry, pun, and I’ve also recently watched Wit again, which also plays with the word so it’s fresh on the brain) and undermine my identity. I still might write those entries, just because they outline some breakthroughs and personal growth that didn’t necessarily result in an A.

Unquantifiable stuffs. You know.

De La Solitude

This  was the last assignment in my non-hard French class. We had just finished studying Montaigne, and the assignment was to write an essay on one of the many subjects about which he wrote. I decided to write about solitude. It’s hard to complain about a less-than-perfect score when the grader says he loved it, AND I failed to follow directions yet again when I used only one quotation instead of two. Oops. I can be such a doofus sometimes. An A is an A, right?  I really enjoyed writing this one. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Il y a un arbre dans un désert lointain. Rien ne le dérange. Il est bien.

Mais, est-il heureux?

Un jour, une araignée seule trouve l’arbre et y grimpe à l’arbre. Elle fait une grande toile d’araignée dans les branches. L’arbre pense que la toile est très belle; elle chatoie sous le clair de lune. L’arbre se sent utile en protégeant l’araignée contre le soleil et les orages de sable. Néanmoins, l’arbre n’a pas besoin de cette araignée pour survivre. Ils ne sont pas amis. Vraiment, est-ce que l’arbre est heureux ?

Certaines personnes aiment avoir beaucoup d’amis. Par contre, d’autres personnes ont peu d’amis. Pourtant, certaines personnes préfèrent souvent la solitude. Il faut décider quel genre de personnes nous sommes. La plus vite on le sait, le mieux notre vie sera.

Comment est-ce qu’on fait cela ? Il y a trop de bruit dans le monde. Des milliards de personnes habitent ici, et leurs cerveaux sont plein de pensées superficielles. Personne ne s’écoute, alors personne ne se comprend. Leurs esprits sont très distraits. Comment trouve-t-on la solitude? Pourquoi est-ce qu’elle est importante?

Au XIXe siècle, l’Américain, Henry David Thoreau, a habité dans une forêt pendant deux ans, deux mois, et deux semaines. Tout seul, il a pensé et a écrit des essais. Il a prié et a médité. Bien qu’il habitait seul, sa mère faisait quand même sa lessive. C’est vrai ! Il était adulte, mais sa « maman » le traitait comme un enfant.

Il a dit, « I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.  We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers ».  Aujourd’hui, on ne peut pas habiter pendant deux ans dans la forêt sans travail, sans responsabilité. Pourtant, on peut trouver la solitude dans une foule, comme on peut trouver le silence au milieu du bruit.

J’ai habité à New York City pendant six ans et demi. Il y a beaucoup de personnes, et certaines d’entre elles sont très impolies. En plus, c’est tellement bruyant. C’est très facile de se sentir solitaire parmi des millions d’étrangers.  Dans un métro plein de personnes, si je voulais être seule, je fermais les yeux, ignorais tout le monde et  respirais profondément plusieurs fois. Je me suis toujours rappelée de respirer. C’était comme une prière.

L’araignée établit une relation passive avec l’arbre, mais on n’est pas comme l’araignée. Comme l’arbre, on a besoin de buts, de se sentir utile, mais contrairement à l’arbre, on n’est pas  une créature passive. Les relations entre les gens sont dynamiques, puisqu’elles impliquent diverses émotions et des personnalités différentes. Parce qu’il y a beaucoup d’éléments humains à considérer en plus de tous les gens, on a besoin de temps pour organiser les pensées de son esprit. Autrement, on deviendrait fou.

Cependant, on doit trouver l’équilibre, parce que trop de solitude ne se satisfait pas. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi Thoreau a passé deux ans seul dans la forêt. C’est bizarre. Il était très intellectuel, et peut-être son intelligence a contribué à son obsession. On a besoin d’amis et de famille. Il faut qu’il y ait l’amour et l’amitié. C’est vrai, il avait sa mère. Je me demande s’il serait rentré plus tôt si sa mère n’a pas fait sa lessive.  Alors, est-ce que c’est la solitude ou les vêtements propres que l’ont rendu heureux ? Ou est-ce que c’est la nature ou sa mère ? Et sa mère ? C’est difficile d’être vraiment heureux sans servir les gens. D’ailleurs, j’étais solitaire quand j’ai réalisé cela.

J’aime la solitude. C’est important d’entendre le silence, de récupérer des pensées, de raviver l’esprit. D’un autre côté, c’est aussi important d’établir des relations avec les autres. C’est pareil.

L’arbre est resté en compagnie de l’araignée plusieurs mois. Il y avait du vent, et il a ramassé l’araignée et l’a emportée au milieu du désert, où le soleil l’a lézardée jusqu’à ce qu’elle meurt. La toile s’est désintégrée et le vent l’a enterrée dans le sable jusqu’à ce qu’elle disparaisse. À nouveau, l’arbre est seul. Mais, ça ne signifie pas qu’il n’est pas heureux.

Est-il heureux ?

Mais non ! Ne soyez  pas fou. C’est un arbre.

Two Quotes, One Book

1. It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on the poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

2. There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.

-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

These could be one whole quote, as only one paragraph separates them, and the idea of the Lord breathing ember to flame unites the excerpts. This is a wonderful description of the Lord’s gentle power.

I’m not sure whether to discuss the book or the quotes, or even if I can distinguish between them. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but all I can really identify with now in these quotes are faith and grace.

A simplification, from the last paragraph of the second quote: God extends his gentle power to us, through grace; this enables bravery in us, or faith, which empowers us to be generous, or to give of ourselves. We are extensions of him; we are his instruments.

When this world flickers and faintly glows and fades into grey, I want the courage to see that it’s more; to open my eyes. We are part of the world. Creation. It will radiate once again.

I catch glimpses of this now, as my rants fall upon attentive ears or as prayers literally surround me. I distrust the world so much sometimes, but it hasn’t blinded me. A little heat still emanates from the embers, and it warms my willingness, the air lifts and billows my hope, inspires me. Inspire, as in, to give breath to, like unto an instrument, which is all I want to be.

So that is what I will do. I will listen. I will pray. And I will hope, faithfully. It will be enough, because grace makes it so.