We Were the Mulvaneys

In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out.

– from We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates, 1996

I read this book twice, both quite some time ago. I have a history with Joyce Carol Oates’ writing. It is only a history. I’ve given up on her current work. The reason I thought about this book again is because I was surprised to see it in a church library (not mine; it wouldn’t be in mine). Joyce Carol Oates can be very dark, delving deep into atrocities such as murder and rape. This book, We Were the Mulvaneys, is not free of this darkness. However, it is tempered by the story of a family. When there is a family involved, an honest-to-goodness family, struggling to remain a family, something shines out of whatever darkness might otherwise exist. Because families mean love, long-suffering, patience, and all the other fruits of the Spirit. God meant us to be families. Too many stories, both real and fictional, portray broken families as if that is the way they inevitably become. We Were the Mulvaneys shows very vividly that it is difficult and complicated to be part of a family. But it also shows how valuable a family is, and how precious family loyalty can be.

The Depth of Scripture

The ladies’ Bible study at my church met today. The ladies had done their homework, and the discussion was lively and deep. At one point, we were discussing Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” That is the ESV version. The NKJV reads a little differently. We read the last half as meaning the Lord has a willing spirit (as in attitude), the Lord’s Spirit is willing and generous, OR the psalmist (David) wants to have a willing spirit. We consulted the pastor because he can read the original Hebrew. We thought that he would give us a definitive answer. Come to find out… he couldn’t give us a definitive answer because it could be interpreted differently in the Hebrew as well.

So why am I mentioning this? I don’t think it really matters how I read Psalm 51:12. All of our variations hold truth. I do find it striking that we can dig so deep into one line of Scripture and never hit bottom. I can see how that might be frustrating at some point. But it is also amazing. God’s Word is so full of meaning and wisdom. There is no end to our learning. The Holy Spirit can open up door after door when we read the Bible, and there will still be more and more doors to open. I hope I remember this the next time I open the Bible and think “same old, same old…”

Evening Reverie

Evening Reverie, Alphonse Mucha, 1898

Evening Reverie, Alphonse Mucha, 1898

I wrote to someone that I often read poetry when I’m in need of sophistication and beauty. Here I look at this beautiful, sophisticated woman, first asleep and then waking up, and I think this must be a poetic painting. I could tell you what it is like to sleep peacefully. I could explain the loveliness of a new day after you have slept fully and deeply. But there’s no need. This painting shows more than what I can write.

May we sleep so beautifully tonight!

September Midnight

It’s not September anymore, but I like this poem. It hums and sings about the autumn season.

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
Ceaseless, insistent.

The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.

– “September Midnight” by Sara Teasdale, 1914

Picture of God

Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-1512

Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-1512

I knew this subject would eventually come up in my blog. I just didn’t know when I’d have the nerve to address it. I recently watched the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy for the second time (I’ve read Irving Stone’s novel by the same name an equal number of times), so Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel ceiling are fresh in my mind. A recent Sunday school class also reminded me that God is a spiritual God, meaning He is Spirit and does not have a bodily form like a man does. My church, in fact, believes man ought not to make pictures of God (and therefore Jesus, because He is fully God). The little kids’ books in the church library have been weeded through to remove books that contain pictures of the Deity (or someone covered up the pictures). I grew up in a Reformed church, but I did not grow up knowing about this brand of respectfulness to God. This is something I encountered after I fell in love with such works as Michelangelo’s Pieta and Raphael’s Madonnas. How do I reconcile this in my heart? I have not reconciled anything. I am only thinking these things through.

Michelangelo viewed God as he viewed almost every human being: manly, very human, muscular, alive. I cannot agree with that. God is spirit. However, the Bible itself uses figures of speech such as “the arm of God” or “the eyes of God” to help us understand things we cannot otherwise understand. Is Michelangelo divinely inspired as were the writers of the Bible? No, I don’t think so. Michelangelo was a man who had his own unique view on everything, and so he created things through that unique lens. Is it wrong of me to look at his painting of God? I don’t know. I’ve already looked at it. It’s in my mind. I can’t erase it. My husband would argue that I am not worshiping the God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, therefore it is fine to look at the painting. I want to submit to my husband’s ideas on this point. But something nags at me. What if God is really offended by that particular image of Himself? What if He is offended by all images of Himself? I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus was born at a time when cameras were not invented. It’s no accident that Michelangelo never actually saw Jesus in his lifetime. Perhaps it is really true that God is not to be imaged in any shape or form.

So, I could look at the Sistine Chapel and remind myself that this is Michelangelo’s view of God and it is wrong. I can look at his Pieta and remind myself that it is his view of Christ and it is disrespectful. But in the Pieta, it’s only the earthly body portrayed; His soul had gone to heaven! You can see how this wars on in my mind. I have twice weeded through my own kids’ books and thrown out books that contained pictures of Jesus. And then I bought a Bible story book with beautiful, classically-painted illustrations because I did not want to buy a Bible story book that had comical images. I thought the pictures set an appropriate tone for the seriousness and beauty of the storyline. There are pictures of Jesus, and we look at them. We are studying Fra Angelico’s religious paintings for our artist study this term. They contain pictures of Jesus. At the moment I am not honoring my church’s desire to rid ourselves of images of God. But, at the moment, I don’t honestly think that I’m displeasing God. I’m not going to try to justify my reasons because my reasons are only human. I can only conclude that I need to pray about it because any human I ask is only human. His interpretation might be wrong.

Song of Myself

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
— from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, 1855

So many parts of this famous long poem cause me to wince and read even faster so as to get past the uncomfortable part. Even the fast pace of the poem is somewhat offending to my poetic ideals of taking time to savor each word in a poem. And yet, I can’t deny Whitman’s genius (neither can he!). He may not be humble. He may not be careful. He may be long-winded and wild and drafty. But still, he excites. His words tumble and roll along the page like thoughts and feelings inside his head. His images are clear and grand. And he loves nature as much as he loves himself. I would like to find out someday that running blackberry really does adorn the parlors of heaven.

Making Connections

I once heard a wonderful lecture about liberal arts that solidified my belief that the different parts of life can all be interconnected. It’s not just for college classes. I have been finding connections in my daily routines, and I would like to write a few of them down, if only to explore them for myself.

I have been reading Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady, which contains much psychological insight within the relations of the main characters. The conversations between these people are striking, but what lies underneath the actual spoken words is very deep. So when I came across this post by one of my favorite bloggers, Miriam from Writing for Myself, I couldn’t help but make a connection. She makes sauerkraut, but beneath this act of cooking lie more threads from her past and from her present emotional state of mind. Read on to the end of the post; it is rewarding. In fact, it sparked another connection for me.

If making sauerkraut is Miriam’s way of processing different aspects of her life, then piano-playing is my way of reacting to different aspects of my life. Piano-playing is not just about making music. It’s not only a means of doing something creative, adding beauty to my home, practicing an art. It is that, but for me it is more. I often go to the piano when I am stressed out. In fact, I have told my son to tell me to go play piano when I’m acting overwhelmed or frustrated (and he has done so!). It is calming, but it’s not just that either. There is something deeper. It’s a form of reaction for me. I could react to stress by being angry and yelling. I could react to sadness by crying. I could react to frustration by throwing things. I could react to extreme joy by becoming hyper. Or, I could play piano. I’m not very good, but I have several years of lessons under my belt, and I have some favorite classical songs. “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven is especially important to me. So many emotions can float under the rhythmic waves of that beautiful song. There’s a special fast song I go to when I need to pound on something. When I want to lose myself in singing, I open the church hymnal. I play until my back hurts, and then I play some more. I’ve grown to like that dull ache in my spine. It means I’m doing something that is more than just a pastime. Something inside me is healing.

Now I want to write another important connection I have recently made. A couple nights ago I sat down at the edge of my bed, picked up my Bible, and turned to Isaiah simply because I like Isaiah. I found Isaiah 65:17, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” I couldn’t believe it! I have such trouble forgetting things. I don’t really mean bad things that other people do to me. I mean bad things I have done in the past, failures, low points, disgraces, embarrassments. I have trouble moving on from those things. My last paragraph talked about using the piano to react. Yes, I can remember specific times when I used piano-playing to put a new direction on my depression, my low times. Those times seem to be with me always. And here I read that they will not be with me always. In the new world, after Christ returns, I won’t remember those things! It is a relief. It is pure grace.

I also connected this verse with the ladies’ Bible study I am leading. We are going through Nancy Guthrie’s book, The Wisdom of God: Seeing Jesus in the Psalms and Wisdom Books. Isaiah is not a wisdom book. And yet, I found some great wisdom there. This isn’t surprising in itself; I know the entire Bible is full of God’s wisdom. Yet, I know from our Bible study that wisdom isn’t always obvious. We recently studied some of the Psalms that are about royalty (both King David and King Jesus). It is not obvious that the connections we make between David and Jesus are pieces of God’s wisdom. But I think that is where Guthrie is going with all this. Wisdom is finding those connections between what God is doing and who God is. And applying wisdom means involving ourselves in this connection. What God is doing and who God is is part of my life. It actually is my life. I am nothing without God. I am nothing without His great plan.

This exploration turned out better than I planned. I actually made a connection about connections. I think. Now my mind is starting to swirl. I’m going a bit too deep, I suppose. I need to surface again. My plans for the rest of the night: read more blogs, read more of the Guthrie book, and read more of The Portrait of a Lady. Maybe I’ll have an awesome dream connecting all three in some strange, fluid way.