Untuned 

My heart is a violin

With strings played to the breaking,

And wound so tight I have no breath

Since the hour of waking.

Still sings my soul, though grown thin

So lost among a score,

And yearning for familiar rest

I failed to love before.

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Writing Victories

Just had to brag a little bit:

Today marks the two-year birthday of my baby novel. On this day in 2014, I was inspired to write a book about a quirky little town that I stumbled upon and, to my delight, today I reached the word count required for my manuscript to qualify as a legitimate novel! And, to make matters even better (though admittedly a little bittersweet), I wrote my first death scene! This is quite a milestone in my life as a writer, so I thought I would write a little tribute here and publish one of my favorite scenes just to celebrate the occasion. Read on, if you’d like, to discover one chapter of Cobbly Nob.

 

Warning: the following chapter will be slightly confusing without any context, but nobody will probably read this far into this blog post anyway. (Let’s be honest.)

The Tea Scandal

Paige awoke to a light tapping on her bedroom door.

“Paige? You awake, honey?”

“Yes,” Paige croaked. She cleared her throat. “Yes, Mrs. Ellis!”

“We’re about to open for brunch; you’ve slept the morning away!”

“Oh!” Paige glanced at her phone. It was indeed past 10 o’clock. But if she had slept so long, why was her head pounding so mercilessly against her skull? Waking from a nightmare at the witching hour and banging her head on the ceiling had probably not done her any favors, but what she wanted more than anything was a strong cup of coffee.

“We saved you some breakfast, if you’d like!” continued Mrs. Ellis.

“And tea!” shouted Miss Linda from down the stairs in the kitchen.

“I’m up!” Paige sprung up, careful to mind her head, and promptly sat back down as the blood rushed from her head and her vision faded.

She threw on some clothes, tossed her hair up, and swiped some mascara on her pale lashes with the mechanical efficiency she had mastered during her senior year of high school during which she had had to get up at 5 o’clock and be at school within half an hour in order to take all of her electives.

She was greeted with “Good mornings” from Mrs. Ellis and Miss Linda, who she had taken to calling “the Hens” in her mind, as they fluttered about the kitchen. A plate of waffles waited at the counter for her, but she could hardly enjoy them in all of their syrupy, buttery goodness for the throbbing of her head.

“More tea, honey?” asked Miss Linda. Paige was not sure whether she was asking if she would like honey with her tea or whether the stiff “Grey Hen” was warming up to her enough to use a pet name.

“Yes, thank you.” Miss Linda poured her yet another – it was her third that morning alone- generous cup of tea and then allowed a thick stream of fresh honey to drip into it from the honeypot. So much for terms of endearment, thought Paige, sipping her tea and scalding her tongue.

Her head ached worse than it had only moments ago. Each morning at breakfast, one of the Hens would set a hearty plate of waffles or pancakes with bacon (or, more commonly in accordance with Southern hospitality and love of good vittles, both) and, with it, a steaming cup of tea. And Paige never seemed able to escape the humid kitchen, with its many delicious smells weaving together in a tapestry of scent she could feel on her skin, without having to swallow a second helping of some dish and at least two additional cups of tea. She suspected the Hens were trying to fatten her up, having overheard Mrs. Ellis worry that their guest was “as thin as a rail” although, despite being tall and lanky, she was quite average sized.

Despite these overwhelming servings of the best home-cooked meals she had ever eaten (she felt a bit like Scarlett O’Hara, enjoying the plenty of the Antebellum days), her head continued to throb with a pounding that crescendoed every moment. Four cups of tea and she was forced to recognize one undeniable truth: she needed coffee and only coffee. Strong, thick, black coffee bitter enough to jolt her awake and cure the throbbing.

“Coffee?” said Miss Linda when Paige mentioned it. Her angular face adopted an insulted look. “I’m afraid we do not have any.” She whisked away with her teapot with the same air of disappointment that Miss Dinah had displayed when she spoke of dog-people. Apparently to Miss Linda, coffee-drinkers were in the same category of offenders.

After that, Paige learned her lesson and for three more mornings did her best to savor the sweet tartness of the tea at breakfast and ignore the sharp ache in her skull throughout the rest of the day. She spent the afternoons of two of these days at the Blue Bookstore with Aunt Mary. However, sorting through the stuffy and poorly-lit aisles, filled with the wonder of books though they were, did nothing to help her plight. It was not until the fourth day- her fifth full day in Cobbly Nob- that Paige remembered the coffee shop, the Sock Monkey Cafe and Modern Art Gallery, that she had seen downtown. Henceforth it became her sole mission in life to visit that hallowed cafe and suddenly the cartoonish image of the Sock Monkey on the sign no longer seemed tacky but a sainted portrait.

“Morning! More tea?” a cheerful voice greeted her. Paige looked up from her book, Wuthering Heights, and was relieved to see Mrs. Ellis’s motherly face beaming down at her. How she was so energetic without coffee, Paige did not know, but she was glad at least that Miss Linda was not the one serving her breakfast this time, for it meant she could probably get away with only two cups of tea without upsetting her hosts.

She downed a plate of scrambled eggs so fluffy they were like pillows for the ham that nestled among them, flipped her book closed and tossed it into her messenger bag, and walked briskly out the door and down the road before the second kettle of tea could whistle at her to drink it.

Every two steps seemed to beat in time with her thoughts: “Cof-fee. Cof-fee.”

And then, there it was, in front of her, the cheesy red smile of the Sock Monkey on the sign. She pushed the door and prayed that it was open. It was. As she crossed the threshold, the dry, nutty scent of coffee grounds greeted her. She inhaled deeply- Oh, bliss! – and then marched up to the counter.

“A coffee please,” she said decisively, not even glancing at the menu and barely glancing at the barista. “Black.”

“Well you certainly know what you want,” laughed the employee behind the counter. He was the same young man who had said hello on her first day there, the day of her trip to Kat Kingdom. “You sure you don’t want some cream? Maybe make it a frappe?”

“No,” said Paige, annoyed. Honestly, just because she was a teenage girl did not mean she liked those frilly milkshakes wannabes. “Black.”

“Coming right up.” He did not dare laugh again, but Paige saw a twinkle in his eyes- which she also noticed were exceptionally brown…The color of a macchiato, she thought- as he took her money and handed her her fifteen cents change. She took a seat at the bar and withdrew Wuthering Heights from her bag.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” declared Catherine from the pages of the gothic novel. Paige, headache lulled to a dull groaning by the coffee-scented air, was captured by the passionate scene unfolding in the words of Emily Bronte. The decorations and sounds of the coffee shop, a quirky combination of Mardi-Gras and hipster chic, were forgotten.

“He does not know what being in love is?” wondered the hysterical heroine.

“No, he does not,” murmured Paige with a cynical smile. The love affair of Heathcliff and Catherine had never seemed to her as authentic as that of Anne and Gilbert, Elizabeth and Darcy, or even- reluctant as she was to admit it- Rhett and Scarlett. It was too…dramatic.

“Who does not what?” asked a tenor voice. She looked up and blinked, eyes adjusting from the black and white of the page to the reds and greens, golds and blues of the cafe. The boy from behind the counter slid a large mug, the face of the Sock Monkey printed on its side, under her nose.

“One moment,” she said. She lifted the mug to her lips and gulped at the coffee, wincing as she scalded her mouth, but swallowing anyway and sighing in satisfaction. “Bless coffee.”

The boy smiled at her, a silly half-grin that made his macchiato eyes light up. She was reminded of the twinkle lights she had seen him hanging the day before. “Who does not what?”

“Oh, sorry,” she looked down at her book. “I was talking to my book- I mean- myself.”

“What book?” Without waiting for her answer, he lifted the cover from the counter and scanned the title. He nodded. “Emily Bronte. Good choice.”

“You’ve read it?” she looked back up at him, more seriously now. After all, meeting someone who likes one of your favorite books is having a book recommend a person.

The boy nodded. “Literature course, senior year.”

“Nice,” Paige said. She took a more cautious sip of coffee and turned back to her novel.

“So who doesn’t what?” asked the young man.

“What?”

“You never answered my question except to say it was about your book.”

“Oh,” said Paige. “Heathcliff. He does not know how to love. His affair with Catherine is not love, but a futile passion as he projects his ideals of the perfect other onto her.”

“You sound just like my literature teacher.” The laughter was in his eyes again and Paige could not help watching it- it was so…she could not think of the word…refreshing? No. That wasn’t quite it. He noticed her gaze and she blinked, blushed, and tried once more to return to her book.

“So you agree with the teachers that Heathcliff was not really in love with Catherine?” he pressed.

“Yes,” she said, not allowing herself to look up again, her cheeks still hot, though she could not tell why exactly. Perhaps it was the coffee.

“Okay then…” he exaggerated a shrug and turned away. “Let me know if you need anything.”

Paige nodded, sipped her coffee, and reached blindly into her bag for a pen to highlight Catherine’s impassioned speech. Her fingers knew where to look: she always kept her favorite purple pen in the smallest inside pouch that was meant for a cell phone, but was rarely used for this purpose. Where was her phone anyway? Oh well. She’d find it later. Her hand found the pocket, stretched out from use, but it did not find the pen. She carefully lay the book face down with its covers splayed so her spot would not be lost, wincing as she did so at the crackling of its poor contorted spine. She looked in her bag. No pen.

“Stink it,” she muttered.

“Come again?” The boy looked up from where he was scribbling in a notepad the order of another customer.

“Nothing…actually, could I borrow a pen?” Paige asked, noticing the neat row of exactly eleven pens in his apron pocket.

“I’m afraid I don’t have an extra, but I can grab one from the kitchen.”

“Um…” said Paige, quirking an eyebrow at the collection neatly clipped into his apron.

“Oh these pens?” Mark followed her gaze. “These are mine, but I suppose I could lend one to you…”

“If you don’t mind terribly,” replied Paige with some sarcasm.

“Well I do mind, but not terribly I suppose.” He ran his finger along the tops of the pens, hovered over one in particular that to Paige was identical to the others, and carefully withdrew it without messing up the regimented lines of the others. He handed it to her and watched from across the counter as she drew a straight line underneath Catherine’s speech.

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

“Thanks,” he said as she handed back the pen after drawing a large, bold question mark beside the passage. “Why the question mark?”

“Because I don’t understand it. That’s the point of a question mark, isn’t it?”

“What don’t you understand?” he asked, ignoring her sarcasm.

“This quote, but I’ll figure it out if I keep reading.”

“Read this book before?”

“Once.”

“Depressing choice for a reread, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I like it,” Paige said, tilting her nose a tad higher and meeting his eyes.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t good,” the boy’s eyes stared back into hers and seemed to laugh at her. “Just so…Gothic.”

Paige blinked. “It isn’t as Gothic as Frankenstein.”

“It has all the elements.”

“Meh,” said Paige.

“He knows the elements of gothic literature? Who even is this guy?” she thought. “And does he look a bit like Josh Groban…focus, Paige.” She imagined Scarlett O’Hara rolling her eyes and forced herself to focus.

“The ghost?” continued the boy.

“A dream,” said Paige, bored.

“The castle?”

“Not actually a castle.”

“Alright then. I’ll agree that Frankenstein is more Gothic, and add that it is a better study than Emily Bronte’s replica.”

“Replica!” Paige nearly spit out her coffee and closed the book.

“Yeah,” he said, casually flicking away the dripped coffee with a rag. “Emily’s writing is almost indistinguishable from her sister’s. Slip a chapter of Jane Eyre into Wuthering Heights and I wouldn’t even notice the difference. The female authors of that era tend to be so…the same. Poorly-worded statement, perhaps, but I think I am justified in saying that Mary Shelley broke the standard, especially considering her writing predates the identical Bronte triplets…er…sisters.” He grinned mischievously and Paige could tell he was relishing annoying her. Well, she relished a debate too.

“There may a family resemblance between the writing styles. So what? They lived and wrote at the same time, in the same family! Emily, however, was a one-hit wonder and Wuthering Heights is far more profound than Jane Eyre.” (Sorry Jane, thought Paige, wincing as a beloved character blinked back imaginary tears in her mind.)

“Oh is it?”

“Yes. The resolution for Jane Eyre was too neat. Sure, Rochester lost an arm, but everything was too happy, too unrealistic. On the other hand, Emily’s novel ends ambiguously, which offers a much richer study on not only its story but the world beyond its covers.”

“Interesting, but I believe we were talking about Frankenstein-”

“Oh don’t even get me started on that book, with Victor’s trembling and fevers always ruining the action. The only character development was a worsening of nerves. Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice might as well have played the role.”

“Let’s not drag poor Mrs. Bennet into this,” laughed the boy. “You really have no mercy on her poor nerves.” He said this in his best imitation of the nagging woman. And then Paige found herself laughing too.

“Sorry, I get a little intense about books,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee and nearly choking again as she laughed.

“Clearly,” said the boy, but he was smiling. He held out a hand. “Mark Turner.”

“Paige O’Connor.”

“Paige,” he repeated. “Fitting name for a bookworm.”

“Indeed.” He was still holding her hand. Blushing, she pulled it away and they both turned to their tasks: her to her book and him to his cleaning. She was quickly immersed in the chapter again and when she finished her coffee and looked away from the page, Mark was gone, but beside her was a single pen resting on a napkin, which bore a note in cramped writing:

For your annotations. I’d like to hear what insights you come up with. Also, not all love (in literature) is fake; you just have to find it. -Mark.

Paige bit her lip in thought, but also to keep from smiling, and slipped the napkin and pen into her bag. When she reached the Wild Plum, her smile had not yet faded as she replayed the conversation with Mark in her mind. Why did she feel so silly? It was ridiculous, but she could see Scarlett smiling slyly in her mind… 

Her smile faded upon entering the tea house.

“You!” said Miss Linda, in what could only be considered an angry squawk. “Where were you? Is that…” she inhaled deeply “coffee that I smell?”

“Oh, yeah…” Paige said. “I stopped by the Sock Monkey for a cup.”

“Well I suppose you won’t be wanting any of the tea I just brewed then.” It was not a question, so Paige just stared back apologetically until Miss Linda clucked sorrowfully and retreated to the kitchen.

The next morning at breakfast, no tea was offered. Rather, Miss Linda, without a word, set down a tin cup of room-temperature water. Paige fought the urge to laugh and looked toward Mrs. Ellis, always such a cheerful sight in the morning as she fried bacon and picked lovingly on her husband’s manners, but caught herself at the equally serious expression on the “Red Hen’s” face. Suddenly her plans to return to the Sock Monkey, both with the purpose of finding coffee and meeting Mark again, were dismissed from her mind as impossible.

 

Affirming Ourselves to Death

Selfishness is nothing new, but it has grown to such enormous proportions that this generation is actually known as the “Entitlement Generation.” The saddest part is that we, the members of this generation, have been deceived into believing that there is nothing wrong with this and even seem to have redefined morality as personal happiness.

From birth, we have been spoon-fed on praise, sheltered from criticism, educated in self-love, and ultimately told that we deserve to be happy above all else. We become, over the course of our lives, convinced that we deserve our desires simply because we exist. Because we were told every day of our childhoods to “follow our hearts.” Because we continue to be conditioned to consider our feelings as the ultimate moral compass. We are brainwashed into believing that our personal happiness is equivalent to universal correctness.

In the wise words of Dwight Schrute: “FALSE.”

I cannot expect to convince anyone coming from a secular basis that we are wrong to continue this pursuit of our individual desires over (or, indeed, in place of) common morality; to anyone coming from a worldly foundation, there is not a solid case against such selfishness. From a secular perspective, selfishness is self-preservation and a higher law cannot be easily found. However, it is essential that this call is heard by those who claim a biblical worldview. It is vital that those of the Christian faith recognize this grave truth: total affirmation paves the way to hell.

I was raised in a Christian home and from my earliest days, was taught to follow Jesus. Only was I to follow my heart when my heart was resting on Christ. No amount of Disney songs, no matter how catchy, could overthrow this message and I was by grace restrained from an early age of trusting my heart to provide moral guidance. After all, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).

I was not, of course, raised without encouragement. However, it was always tempered with truth. In a generation whose self-image was and continues to be falsely bolstered by participation ribbons and gold stars, truth-based encouragement is exceptionally rare and  all the more vital. When I expressed an interest in being a ballerina, my parents gently but honestly reminded me of my not-so-successful years in dance as a toddler. However, when I demonstrated a passion for music, there was no bound to their encouragement because I showed a strong inclination to excel in this area.

In the same way, when I acted upon wrongful desires, my parents were swift to correct me, rather than applaud and say they would support whatever path I chose. Had they done that, it would have been proof that they didn’t love me just as, had they falsely encouraged my dance career and I had gone on to embarrass myself by auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance,” it would have been cruel on their part. For example, I used to struggle with some eating issues and, when confronted, I remember protesting that it was my choice and that I was happy with my situation. Clearly, it would have been unloving for my parents to have affirmed me in this and, though I was initially angry and uncomfortable, guiding me back to health and safety was the loving response. In correcting my wrong choices, they saved me from a fate much worse than public humiliation and their love for me, though tough, was more apparent. Only he who hates his son spares the rod and only he who hates someone affirms him in what is unwise and sinful (Proverbs 13:24).

Why does it matter if a father spares the rod? What does it matter if someone fails to correct sin or folly or, less directly, stand up for righteousness? In short,  that person runs the risk of affirming the other to death. Ezekiel 33:6 reads: “But if a watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes in and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.”

If we, Christians, fail to correct the sin of others, especially those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in the faith, fellow citizens of the City of God, we are failing as watchmen. We are allowing the danger of sin to sneak in, perhaps even to become accepted, and to corrupt our souls undetected. Not only does this kill others spiritually, it makes us guilty for having failed to fulfill our role as watchmen for Christ and righteousness. Could this be considered loving? Tell me, can anyone point to this example and say, in all honesty, “Yes, that watchman was loving. He did not make anyone within the city uncomfortable by shouting warnings. He was a nice chap.”

Of course not. The man who could say that without lying would be obviously insane. Not warning the people of encroaching danger from the outside is possibly the least-loving thing that the watchman could have done. How much worse would it be for the watchman to know of a danger within the city and neglect to warn people for fear of disturbing their  slumber, offending the lurking enemy, or of losing his reputation as a quiet and amiable guard?

No. The loving thing to do would be to shout. To spread a warning without caring whether it makes people uncomfortable or offends them. Their lives are more important than their feelings. Nobody would say it is wrong to shout a warning at a man in the way of a speeding bus simply because it might startle him. There is a greater cost at stake. His life, any life, is worth  more than the individual feeling of ease.

While it would be selfish of me to pursue sinful or foolish choices, it would have been equally if not more selfish for my loved ones to affirm me in these choices. As St. Augustine says in The City of God, “They are reluctant to [rebuke others], even though their rebukes might correct others, lest…their own wellbeing and reputation should encounter peril or destruction…It is, in short, because of certain ties of selfishness, and not the offices of love” (Augustine, 15).

To wrap this up, I will simply conclude that affirmation does not equal love and love does not require total affirmation. It is possible to correct or disagree with someone while continuing to show them genuine love. I have many friends who hold to different beliefs than I do, but I have never doubted that they love me and that I love them. At the same time, we never have pretended to agree in all things and I think our openness about this is evidence of a deeper affection, for it stems from a companionship that can work through issues. What kind of a deep relationship can exist when total affirmation is required? As soon as one party questions the other’s actions, their relationship will crumble because it was built on the facade of comfort. If we constantly are tip-toeing around each other, afraid to speak truth, the friendship is fragile and will shatter at the tiniest disruption.

Aristotle speaks of this in Nicomachean Ethics. He defines “pleasure friendships” as those built on comfort; each party is friends with the other because he or she derives good feelings from the other’s company. As soon as that other individual does something the one deems offensive, the friendship falls apart, proving it was not genuine. The same concept is true of “utility friendships”; as soon as one party fails to be useful- in this instance, affirming- the other abandons ship.

But then there is the third category: “complete friendship.” This is the friendship between equals; they are not with each other for the sake of pleasure or utility, but to balance each other. Affirmation is not withheld where it is due, but it is not necessary to this sort of relationship because it is built on something greater than surface-level selfishness. Yes, this friendship often leads to pleasure and usefulness, thus benefitting each person’s sense of self. However, these are results, not the foundation. Complete friends love without having to fear any disagreement; in fact, being able to challenge and correct each other is perhaps the most beautiful part of this type of loving relationship. And yes, I mean loving. Correction can be loving and disagreement can be loving.

Just as Aristotle explains, relationships built on pleasure and utility are fast to form and fast to fade because they are not built to withstand any trial. They are erected on a foundation of selfishness and, in this generation, these relationships are thus all the more rampant. We are so convinced that our happiness (pleasure) and plans (utility) are the ultimate good and standard that we are seduced into forming shallow relationships because they offer the affirmation we have equated to love. And I am begging you, reader, to stop this.

The more I love someone, the more hesitant I will be to affirm them in their selfishness. If I did not care, I would let them continue along their dangerous path. Granted, this would be wrong of me for as a Christian I am called to be a watchman even for those I do not consider friends. A Christian is called to love. This is one of the most commonly known facts of the faith. A Christian who fails to love, is failing as a follower of Christ, just as a watchman who fails to warn the city of danger is failing in his post. But we need to stop perverting love to mean affirmation. Rather, we need to recognize that, like complete friendship, complete love cannot be built on total affirmation or it is not love at all but hate, for it supports only shallow relationships and enduring selfishness. 

So my call to you, reader, is the same as you have heard many times before: love. But love truly, acting as watchman for each other and fearing the abandonment of truth and righteousness more than you fear loss of reputation, personal happiness, or the comfort of selfish living. Let us no longer pave the way to moral depravity by continuing to seek total affirmation in order to elevate our selfishness and expand the influence of the Entitlement Generation, but rather let us reform ourselves and our generation by seeking truth as our foundation, which we can only do if we set aside our worries and disagree respectfully but boldly. 

Writing is Hard: A Lament

Writing is hard

and I’ll tell you why:

I am not the Bard

and that makes me cry.

Red pens are bloodstains

on my poor first draft

Despite prep-school refrains

about the English “RAFT.”

Well, dear school teachers,

I must ask you now:

Though you seemed to be preachers,

I do not know how

To find out my ROLE

and write something witty

Or cater to AUDIENCES

who only give pity.

FORMAT is another

thing that I fear,

Should I use some other

TOPIC right here?

And don’t get me started

on characters mine;

They seem to have parted

from the plot in my mind.

Speaking of plot,

that’s a whole other problem.

It’s conflicts are rot

and I can’t seem to solve them.

But Ah! What sweet hope

Is a new inspiration!

To quit is to elope

but I need a vacation!

This stupid novel draft

is getting quite tedious

and you’d have to be daft

to desire to read this.

Alas, though, I’m stuck

and committed you see,

for it is just my luck

to write a trilogy…