Why We Need Dismal Poems About Death and Maggots

ednastvincentmillayAll the beauty in the world is no compensation for the ending of love, Edna St. Vincent Millay argues in her brief and bitter poem, “Spring,” Yes, there are flowers and they are nice. Yes, there is the natural world in its cycles of rejuvenation and sprouting. But all of that, she says, is entirely worthless and even insulting when you are standing by the grave of the friend who is not there or anywhere, who is never to be found again. When you watch the first shovel of earth drop onto the casket, your heart within you will be filled with terror. You will turn instinctively to tell it to your dearest friend, to explain your disorientation and your loneliness. But they will not be there. And for this shudder of panicked isolation, there is no compensation. Millay is angry that anyone might think that anything could make this sorrow the least bit better. It is not enough, she says.

And I think God is not quarreling with Millay or angered by her hopeless poem. When I hear God responding to Millay, I hear him saying, “No, it’s not. It’s not enough. It’s an outrage.”

It’s not enough that here in the chaos and the misery of lives punctuated by deaths, little good things happen. Little flowers sometimes open. Little kind words are sometimes said. God knows that. After all, if there is a God, isn’t he a God of truth and of the real? Nothing that is real should be too much for the world’s maker to handle with complete understanding and goodness. So I think that every honest and skillful representation of the human experience should be of value to Christian people because it can tell us something about what is real. What is real in this poem is its unflinching stare at the dark bottom of the human experience of death. The poem tells us that humans are horrified and unmade by the thievery of death. This is a real thing to which God has a real response. And that response is, “I won’t stand for it.”

[Read the full piece in the Spring 2019 issue of the Cultivating Project.]

A Few Words on Courage and the Cultivating Project

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I’m excited to announce that I’ve recently joined a team of wonderful writers, thinkers and artists over at The Cultivating Project. The purpose of this community is to provide a space for cultivating the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to restore, renew, and reinforce the individual, so I’m delighted to be a contributing member of this group and I hope you’ll spend some time perusing their lovely website here.

The first thing I’ve written for The Cultivating Project is a rather lengthy and quite personal interview, in which I talk about my childhood, poetry, art, literature, the power of imagination, and The Letters From The Sea Tower.

Here’s a little excerpt in which I share some of my thoughts about the concept of courage:

LANCIA SMITH: Would you give us some background to why courage is such a vital issue to you and how does that tie in to the Good, True, and Beautiful?

BRYANA JOY Well, in all honesty, I think one of the biggest reasons I find myself continuously coming back to the concept of courage is because it’s become an absolutely vital part of my daily life. I have some trauma in my past that still resurfaces in the form of severe anxiety and so I know firsthand that fear can be physically, morally, and emotionally debilitating. What I love about the word “courage” is that it doesn’t mean being the kind of person who is not easily scared. If it did, I couldn’t qualify. But no, it means the ability to do something that does scare us. And since I often feel terribly small and inadequate, and since there are so many, many things that scare me, cultivating and developing courage within myself is a consistent and essential need.

So how do we get courage? What does that look like in the real world? For me, courage is about perspective and imagination, and this is where the Good, True and Beautiful comes into play. When my surroundings are mundane and colorless and the world around me shrinks to the tyranny of the minute, it’s hard to have courage. It’s hard to face hardships when I don’t have confidence in the meaning of my work and my breath, when I’ve lost sight of the great and glorious story of which I am a part. So the way I get courage is by steeping myself in things that remind me of the wideness of the world and the illimitable goodness of God. And my hope is that my work will provide a space for others to do just that.

[Read more here at The Cultivating Project.]

Letters From The Sea Tower

20181113_225510 (2)The past couple of months have been pretty quiet here on the blog, and that’s mostly because I’ve been pouring all my time and energy and passion into launching an enormous new project that’s unlike anything I’ve ever undertaken before. I just began sharing it with the world this month and I’ve never been this excited about any of my other creative ventures, so I just have to make a little announcement about it here too!

So here it is: I’m going to be producing a handmade monthly subscription letter that celebrates art and literature and how it matters for the Great Battle of Our Time. I’ll fill these letters with watercolor paintings and sketches, field notes from nature or history or my travels, and illustrated poetry or quotes from my commonplace book. My dream for this project is to produce a letter that fills people with courage and creativity. And I want to make gorgeous, high-quality copies of them and personalize each one and mail them out all over the world.

I remember when I was a kid getting letters in the mail was always a festive occasion. I had a few friends who wrote me snail mail letters and I basically haunted the mailbox whenever I knew one was on the way. Sometimes I would bring the letter inside but wait a few hours to open it, just because I wanted the anticipation to last longer!

Fast-forward to today and most of my mail now is bills and bank statements and political ads and grocery store coupons for items I’m not ever going to buy. I think that might be true for most of us. And I don’t like that. So over the summer I’ve began toying with an idea for how to use to my gifts and talents and interests to revive beautiful, meaningful, and unique hard-copy mail.

Because I know: the world isn’t always a glad place. What’s around us is sometimes so dark. And I want to do some little thing to bring the wisdom and the beauty of the ages right down into mailboxes and homes in a tangible form: fresh artwork on paper you can hold and hang up on the fridge and carry around in your pocket. I want to revive beautiful, meaningful, and unique hard-copy mail. I want to give people courage, because goodness only knows we NEED it. I need it every day. So that’s why I decided to begin writing the Letters From the Sea Tower.

The inspiration for the name of this subscription comes from “The Monsters and the Critics,” an essay J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about literary criticism of Beowulf. In his essay, Tolkien tells a little allegorical story about a man who built a tower on his property. His friends and neighbors thought the tower was a waste of valuable material, but they didn’t know that the man had built it in order to be able to see the sea. My hope is that these letters will offer a similar vantage-point as the tower in that story, that in the middle of our often dreary and monotonous lives, they will be a reminder of glory and unseen reality and a fleeting glimpse of “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

I don’t plan to make these letters a highlight reel or a carefully curated collection of the happy things happening in my life. Instead, I want them to be a well of stories and ideas that inspire others to take heart and remember their callings. And I want to draw out the glory from ordinary things so that others can be inspired to do the same in their own settings, no matter where they are.

IMG_20181102_213955_538 (2)Over the past two months, I’ve spent many hours getting this project ready to launch and producing the first letter. It’s printed right here in my own home on thick, 100% cotton paper and packaged in the most epic envelope, with ink stamps vintage postage stamps. So far, I’ve sent out fifty-four of these letters to giveaway winners, subscribers, and friends, and I have another twelve going out this week. In order to make the letters as accessible as possible, I’m offering subscriptions for three months, six months, or a year, and if you’re not sure if this subscription is for you, you can even purchase a one-month trial subscription for just $12 (which actually comes with two letters, since it includes the intro letter as well as the next monthly letter!) If this sounds like something you might want to be a part of, check out the subscription listing in my Etsy shop to learn more.

The project will officially begin in January 2019 when I mail out the second letter, which I’m currently creating. Afterwards, a new letter will be mailed out each month. That means this is the perfect time to subscribe if you want to be sure you don’t miss out on any of the letters! The subscription might also be a glorious and meaningful Christmas gift for friends who care about literature and the arts. Several people have already ordered gift subscriptions and I work with each one to create a unique, handwritten note explaining the subscription to the gift recipient.

Eventually, my hope is that each month I’ll be able to mail some of these letters out to people who aren’t subscribers at all and might not otherwise ever receive anything like this. The initial launch for a project like is quite costly and so I’ll need a stable subscriber base in order to be able to afford to expand the reach of the letters in this way. However, as I invite you to participate with me in the development of this project, I want to let you know my full vision for where I hope to take these Letters From the Sea Tower.

That Is No Country For Old Men

nocountry
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
(W.B. Yeats, “Sailing To Byzantium”)

One of the great joys of marriage so far has been that of having a companion who consistently spices up my life with his inconsistent schemes, plans, and ideas for new adventures. Whereas I tend to become a little hum-drum and driven by routine, Alex is always coming up with new things to try.

Lately, he’s been working a delivery job most of the day while I’m at home pouring my heart and soul into custom calligraphy projects and new designs for my Etsy shop. It’s a big change from a few months ago when we were at university together, taking most of the same classes and spending the days listening to English lectures together or writing papers side by side.

Thankfully, Alex found a way for us to go on learning together even in this strange transitional stage of our lives. We’ve started listening to audiobooks on Audible and Librivox while he’s doing deliveries and I’m doing calligraphy. So far we’ve knocked out O Pioneers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Children of Hurin, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and No Country For Old Men. It is on this subject that I mean to say a few words, as we’ve been thinking and talking for some time about Cormac McCarthy’s neo-Western noir masterpiece and its Academy Award-winning film.

For me, No Country For Old Men was one of those works that carries its central thematic thread so deep inside that at times the soul of the story seems undiscoverable. Is it a story about fate? The senseless nature of violence? The changing landscape of crime? The far-reaching implications of the drug wars? The new face of the American Southwest? The end of the archetypal cowboy hero?

Or is it much, much bigger than that?

I think we can take a hint from the poem to which McCarthy owes his title: an enigmatic, lyrical piece written by Ireland’s W.B. Yeats and with imagery centered in the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (what is now modern-day Istanbul). This is not cowboy poetry, and what McCarthy has to say is a lot bigger than cowboys. That being said, I think the cowboy is still key.

So who are the cowboys in No Country? It’s obvious, of course, that the kindly and old-fashioned Sheriff Bell is one of them. However, although he is much younger than Bell, Llewelyn Moss may be one of the most important cowboys in the story and although it took me awhile to recognize it, I think Moss might be a quintessential “old man,” in the sense of the story’s title.

llewelynmossMoss is a Vietnam vet in his mid-thirties, and a wannabe cowboy hero. He seems to see himself as a sort of crusading bad-ass lone ranger, a John Wayne character in the flesh. Even his name lends credence to this reading: “Llewelyn” is rooted in old Welsh and “moss” is reminiscent of a forest full of history and years. Moss seems convinced that his skills and intelligence, coupled with the justice of his cause, will ultimately triumph. Although he experiences fear and consternation, he is never so overcome by these things as to reach out to law enforcement for help. He thinks he’s a cowboy boss-man: tough, gritty, brave, brusque, resourceful, authoritative, a man of action and command, capable of violence and extreme steps, but just and righteous.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

However, in what I think it is the central element of the story, McCarthy will not allow Llewelyn to be the hero he thinks he is. Llewelyn, he wants us to know, is deluded in thinking he is the hero of the story. On the contrary, his self-sufficient arrogance brings death and sorrow to everyone he encounters, from his wife and her mother to the teenage runaway girl he is mentoring and “protecting” with a cynical, detached air when she is brutally killed along with him in the motel.

In every possible way, McCarthy is undermining and overturning the archetype of the cowboy hero that Llewelyn aspires to be. In what is perhaps one of the most significant story-telling decisions he makes, McCarthy chooses to have Llewelyn killed off-screen. He does not even dignify the cowboy hero with a heroic final stand. Llewelyn thinks he is the hero, but in the end, he is merely insignificant collateral damage in a war much bigger than him, and his stubborn insistence on getting involved in that conflict makes him the agent of destruction to his own family.

So what is the significance of how McCarthy treats Moss’ character? I think the answer lies in his foil: Sheriff Bell. The other “old man.”

While Bell is also a cowboy and an old-fashioned man of action, what sets him apart from Moss is his humility. Unlike Moss, Bell doesn’t see himself as the hero of the story, and he is full of misgivings about his own adequacy for the position he’s placed in and his ability to tackle the challenges posed by the brutal drug wars intensifying in the southwest. In the end, Bell makes responsible choices for himself and his wife, and avoids the pitfalls of bravado and arrogance that prove the ruin of Llewelyn.

So how does all this fit in with Yeats? It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over for weeks now, and I’m still uncertain about which interpretation to pursue, but I have a few thoughts on the subject.

I think it’s very tempting to assume that the Yeats’ tie-in is a reference to the fact that Sheriff Bell sees the new Southwest (and, by extension, perhaps the whole world) as an unfit place for the wise and for those committed to traditional ideals of justice, righteousness and sanity. Just like Yeats, Bell finds himself lost in the morass of modernity. You could even make the argument that Bell sees earth itself as unfit for good men. Unlike Llewelyn, he recognizes that the earth is not a place where the just are necessarily rewarded, not a place where good men always triumph. Perhaps, like Yeats, he is hungry for “the artifice of eternity.”

However, I wonder if this interpretation is not a bit too easy, a bit too surface-level. Also, it hardly suffices to explain Llewelyn’s prominence in the story and the decisions made by both McCarthy and the Coen Brothers to consistently reverse our expectations for his character. To me, Llewelyn’s character prevents us from interpreting the theme of this story as a direct adaptation of Yeats’ idea. Rather, I wonder if we’re being challenged to challenge Yeats’ own take on the old men.

sailing to byzantium.pngIs there something harmful in self-identifying as part of a wise and righteous minority? Perhaps not necessarily. But I think Llewelyn’s character points to the imminent danger of hubris and destructive arrogance that so often accompanies the determination to be an old-fashioned hero. And, what may be more to the point, he is a living (well, OK, not living anymore) warning against the oh-so easy assumption that we’re always on the right side simply because we understand our own motives and fail to understand the motives of others. Maybe McCarthy is suggesting that there is an inherent danger in Yeats’ own self-congratulatory statement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. What do you see as the central theme of No Country For Old Men? (the film or the novel) How do you reconcile it with “Sailing To Byzantium”? What do you see as the significance of Bell and Llewelyn’s characters? Is there any country for old men? Who are the old men?

Thoughts on Faith and Egrets

Great Egrets Landing in Shallow Water

“…unruffled, sure, 
by the laws
of their faith not logic, 
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”
         (Mary Oliver, EGRETS

 

My husband and I have both been ill this week, with our throats too scratchy and hoarse to even read The Fellowship of the Ring out loud to each other before bed, as has been our usual routine. So last night I picked up Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, which was given to me as a gift by a dear friend from Dr. Bob Fink’s Creative Writing workshop. And in one particular poem, I found words to accompany the current season of my life and the newest Great Secret I’ve discovered.

As is usually the case, it was right there in plain sight.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a lot of heartache and disappointment. I’ve seen the crumbling and the ruin of people, places, and things that I’ve loved with reckless abandon. And the reckless abandon part of me has been all but swallowed up.

I’ll be quite open with you. Last semester, I came through a massive crisis of faith. The years of disappointment and loss came to a head and I found myself unable to place any confidence in the goodness of God. A mentor met me for lunch at Jason’s Deli and I cried through most of our meeting, unconcerned about who might see.

But time passed and the throes of doubt and anger dissipated. Even though I wasn’t getting along with God, I was dead-set on holding on to him. Like Peter said —

—Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

His words became like the theme of my life. And I was sad that the fire had gone out, but I was not shocked. I had read so many warnings about this from the Aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, Abraham, Moses – they all fought this darkness, this blank space. I knew it wasn’t new to me; there wasn’t room for self-pity.

I would just keep going. I would just keep doing the things. I would not worry about whether I felt anything. I would just do it.

But loving Jesus, it’s not a Nike thing. It’s not a thing like Shia LeBeouf yelling at the camera and pumping his arms like a gorilla (I know, why does that video exist?). It’s not like that.

That’s what I learned in Tijuana. Alex and I were part of a group that went down to Baja 143earlier this month. We built a church and a home (well, we hammered a few hundred nails, at least, and slung lime green paint on the boards, our construction skills being minimal). In the park a little boy sat down next to us while we ate our lunch one afternoon and he spoke to us in Spanish and we painstakingly constructed and fumbled through clumsy questions and answers for him. And mostly we just sat together, us and the little boy from a lonely village in the desert, not saying anything.

But what was most beautiful about the trip was all the stories people told and passed on. On the bus, on the street, in meetings after dinner and breakfast in the frigid breeze blowing off the ocean, people told their stories of staggering grace. Their stories of change, and transformation, and hope deferred but nevertheless arriving. Their stories of faith.

And I learned something: faith isn’t only an action word. It isn’t only about what we do. It is also a climate of the mind. It is a determination to believe, come what may, in the coming of the promise. It is a rejoicing. It is a feast. It is a banquet in honor of things that are not. And when we’re holding that banquet, there’s no need to feel foolish, for at the head of the table sits God — who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.