“Breaking Dawn” Is Coming Soon

I couldn’t think of anything to really write today. It’s just been one of those days.

It seemed like my post-everyday-goal was going to bite it again this week. Until I came home from the gym. My wife, my beloved, wonderful wife, was lying in bed with the laptop open, cruising the Internet.

“Whatcha looking for?” I asked.

Breaking Dawn,” she replied.


In fact, double ugh.

I think, of all the books I’ve ever read, the two least likable characters I’ve ever come across are Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. And I’ve read both Lolita and Freedom. Heck, I even liked Ebenezer Scrooge better than the Twilight saga’s main duo. And that’s before Scrooge got the midnight visit from Marley.

I will one day explain why I don’t care for Twilight. The reasons are many. And I know that there are a bajillion fans out there who think it’s the cat’s meow. We will agree to disagree.

Just know, if you live with a Twi-hard, the big day is only a two months away. Breaking Dawn will soon be breaking box office records at a theater near you. Chances are, you’ll help break those records with at your loved one’s insistence.

I suggest Netflix and an iPad…

Emily Dickinson Is Overrated (Or, How to Break Up With Your Book)

Let me just say, this post isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Not a bit. If there are two sober thoughts in all of these lines, I’ll eat your hat.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m on Benadryl right now.

I’ve been teaching vacation bible school this week at my church, which is new for me. Normally, I’m the idiot that stands in front of the kids and jumps up and down hollering like a maniac, trying to get them into the groove of the VBS day. This year, I’m in a classroom with 15 four and five year-olds, trying to figure out how to teach the bible at their level.

It’s been interesting.

My copy of the Treasury doesn't have the snazzy dust jacket.

So this afternoon, after I got done teaching and writing my massive t0-do list for our mission trip next week, I decided to feed my malnourished brain and pulled out the Treasury of American Poetry. I let the book just fall open. It landed on Emily Dickinson.

Now, I’ve been a fan of Ms. Dickinson for years, particularly of her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death.” Morbid, I know, but it’s a powerful little compaction of verse. I re-read that poem today, along with everything else they had in the Treasury. And the rest of her stuff left me thinking:

It’s no wonder she hid these in a trunk.

That’s a mean-spirited barb just for shock and laughs; I don’t mean to suggest that she had no talent. Only an untalented hack would suggest that.  I read and re-read at least thirty of her poems, and other than “Death” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you Nobody, too?” not a single one spoke to me.

And the thought occurred to me that perhaps in my previous readings of her work I overestimated her value to me.

Of course, the thought also occurred to me that perhaps I’m just not in a Dickinson phase right now, and I shouldn’t beat her up for not being right for this season of life.

I think both trains of thought are true, and here’s why: I sincerely believe that there are some authors and books that speak to you in certain seasons. Like that time you went through your Melville phase and told everyone to call you Ishmael. Or your Aunt Frieda who spent an entire summer reading Jackie Collins as if it were the bible. Or your crazy Uncle Ramone who spent an entire year trying to retrace Marlowe’s steps in The Big Sleep. There are just certain genres or styles or characters or writers who come into your life at the exact right time and make a big impression on you during that season.

Emily Dickinson was one of those writers for me. She spoke to me at a time when her terse style and playfully dire tone were what my soul craved. And then today I read her and she’s got nothing for me.


I shut the volume of poetry after reading a couple more poems by Edgar Lee Masters (I only met him today, and safe to say, we probably won’t meet again) and I shelved it next to The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (and no, that has nothing to do with nautical bards…).

The Treasury’s little blue binding smiled at me, Emily ensconced safely inside. It was like meeting an ex at a class reunion (or in my case, reading a Facebook post from one of the girls I secretly crushed on in high school): Wow, I dodged a bullet there.

That’s the best way to break up with a book, really. To gently close its cover and place it somewhere not out of sight but certainly out of your consciousness. Collected poems and other romantic ditties are easy to break up with because they are usually seasonal reads for most of us. I don’t give a second thought to my copy of Walden or Leaves of Grass or that strange little volume of Keats I got at a Goodwill store because the pages for “Ode on a Grecian Urn” were the only pages that didn’t have stains on them. They sit on my shelves, little pieces of my past, little samples of my DNA, and if I think of them, it’s usually with warmth and little else.

But there are some books that won’t allow you to do that. Infinite Jest is the king of them. That massive paperback stares at me like a deranged child molester slowly filing his way through the prison bars. One day soon, we’ll have to tangle and it won’t be pretty. Second would be Lolita. A close third would be Finnegan’s Wake. These are books that you don’t really break up with as much as you simply go on the lam and hope to God they never find you.

In this way, books are a lot like people. Some we hold near and dear to our bosom, others we hold at a close distance with great fondness but no need for connection. And still others we hide in certain corners, only to be flirted with when we are sure we’re ready, when we’ve got our A-game together and there will be no innocent bloodshed. All of them shape us, define us, tell us things about ourselves that we might not otherwise know (or ever think to learn); all of them are precious in some way.

I can’t think of a great ending for this post (like I said, two coherent thoughts and I’ll eat your hat – the one with the feathers that even British Royalty wouldn’t be caught dead wearing) so I’ll just leave it here:

What books have you broken up with recently? And which book is sitting on your shelf, biding it’s time?

New Year, New Dreams

I don’t remember the exact date I read first read the poem, but I remember its resonance. I know that I was in high school and our senior lit teacher Mrs. Williams was trying to get us into American poetry of the early 20th Century. After months of American poets from the 19th Century, it was a tough sell. We were tired. We were bored. We wanted to read something that actually interested us. Nothing was working.

So Mrs. Williams, desperate to engage our attention, assigned us Harlem: A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. We were to read the poem and write a personal response for class the next day. I remember not being overly impressed by the title.

But I was blown away by the poem. It sang to me. The imagery haunted me. Hughes’ voice was one of the single most painful I’d ever read. I wrote a feverish paragraph that garnered me my customary “A”, but life as a teenager overcame Hughes’ words and I put the poem out of my conscious mind.

But somehow, some way, the poem stayed with me. I came across it again while completing my studies at UGA. It hit me just as hard the second time. Only, I now had the time and space to meditate on the words, to really soak in what Hughes was saying about life, about dreams, about the painful waiting that sometimes is the essence of life.

I put that poem deep into my soul and carried it around with me for years, often bringing it back out in times of frustration or hopelessness. It was a comfort, a commisserating comrade that felt what I was feeling and didn’t tell me to buck up or that there would always be tomorrow. No, Harlem: A Dream Deferred reveled with me in the downtroddeness of life.

Today, the opening line of the poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?”, jumped into my head as I was thinking about the new year and new dreams. The melancholy heartache of even that one line threatened to overwhelm me; there’s just nothing about Hughes’ musings that can be construed as happy. Spurred by the years of neglect, I Googled it and read it all over again.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
and then run?

Does it sink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

 This time, as I read, I realized that Hughes had no hope when writing these lines. The Harlem Renaissance was nearing its end and the circumstances of African-Americans hadn’t changed in any measurable way. 40 years ahead of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King and “I Have a Dream”, Langston Hughes chronicled not the death of a dream, but the delay of it, and as the saying goes “Something delayed is something denied.”

Thinking about all of that, I’m glad that as this new year begins I have hope. Not mere wishful thinking, but an abiding personal assurance that the dreams of my heart, the dreams for my wife and children, are not saddled with the sad ending of Hughes’ dream. I know more privilege and better circumstances that Hughes could have, but I know something even greater: the God who makes dreams come true. Only with Him can Hughes’ question be answered in any meaningful way: A dream deferred becomes God’s canvas for making us who He wants us to be.

Think about that as you dream big dreams for this new year, and then give those dreams back to the Dream Giver. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

The Most Influential Book Ever

I’d never heard of Gary Wills until Robert Siegel interviewed him on NPR’s “All Things Considered” the other day. I listened because I was in the car on the way home, and NPR is the best thing for preventing high blood pressure in Atlanta traffic. Also, I like Robert Siegel’s voice – there’s something about the calmness of it, with just a hint of a lisp, that makes it seem comforting without being pretentious. So when he mentioned “Pulitzer-Prize winning” and “historian” in the same sentence, I smiled at my good fortune and turned the volume up.

I’ll spare you the details on Wills (besides, this link on NPR.org sums it up better anyway) but I will say that I became fascinated by one of Siegel’s questions: “You’re signature question came about during an interview with Richard Nixon. You asked him, ‘What book has influenced you?'” Wills answered that Nixon’s response caught him off-guard because it was A) long, and B) thoughtful. Nixon’s book? “Beveridge and the Progressive Era” by Claude Bowers (1932).

Wills has asked the question of countless people since, including Hillary Clinton (“The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky, for opening up spirituality in a new way). It’s a fascinating way, if you’re a reader, to learn about other people. It’s not flawless, of course – taste in books is like taste in wine or fashion or movies: usually, anything that doesn’t match yours is to be scoffed at – but it does give us a common ground from which to examine people.

Needless to say, the interview, and the revelation of Wills’ most reliable and delightful question, has gotten me to thinking: what’s the most influential book that I’ve read?

Being a Christian, the Bible is tops. Nothing else stirs me quite like the Good Book, especially once I learned how to read it properly and not like a right-wing political manifesto. But that’s also an easy answer, and a bit bland. Like Amish prom dresses, it doesn’t reveal much.

So I’ve been wrecking my brain for some answers, and I have a few.

Most influential non-fiction? There are two. Lewis Grizzard’s “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself“, which I read as a pre-teen by sneaking it out of my parent’s bedroom one afternoon while they were outside working in the yard. It was the funniest book I’d ever read up to that point (and still holds up pretty well, actually), and one that I would re-read countless times over the years. Grizzard showed me that the world I grew up in – Southern, down-to-earth, slightly awkward – was one that could produce stories that both moved and delighted people. I learned that you could bring people to tears with hysterics and profundity; that if you were honest about what you saw and felt (with maybe a dash of fictionalization tossed in for good measure) you could communicate simple truth in a powerful way.

In short, I learned that my natural knack for humor and storytelling was something that people might one day want to read. It changed my life, literally.

The second non-fiction book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Enough has been said about this book to fill a million blogs over, but Lewis’ straightforward and unorthodox (compared to how I grew up) approach to the faith gave me hope that I didn’t have to be ashamed of being smart and being a Christian. Until that point, there were powerful messages of shame that had been lobbed at me throughout my youth (not by my family, but outside sources) because I was smart. Because I liked to read. Because I could see things in the Bible that other people couldn’t see and teach those things in ways others couldn’t. I was told to not be uppity, or high-falutin’, or bigger than my britches. I was told that college was not for a good Christian man. I was told a lot of things, and Lewis showed me the exact opposite: that God wanted all of me – brain, imagination, soul, body. It was liberating.

But I came to Lewis’ non-fiction by his fiction. The first thing I ever read by C.S. Lewis was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and it still remains the single-most influential piece of fiction I’ve ever read. Sure, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl stirred my mind in a more evocative sense with his chocolate river and great glass elevator and endless use of smell to ignite my imagination, but Lewis’ work was deeper, more profound, larger in a sense that very few books have matched since. Before I knew about Lewis’ Narnian tales and what he was attempting to do through fiction, I was amazed and awed by Aslan and his roar. I could imagine his mane being as golden as Lewis described and wanting to bury my face in it alongside Lucy’s. I could feel the coldness of Winter But No Christmas, and even got nauseated with Edward on Turkish Delight. I knew that the White Witch was an evil unlike any other, and I cried at the Stone Table. I experienced all of this without knowing its subtext, without knowing that Lewis was telling me a story that ran deeper than Narnia’s Deep Magic, ran deeper than the blood inside my veins.

And once I knew the Story behind the story, had experienced all of Lewis’ thoughts on fiction and art and beauty as a path to God, I became that much more enamored with the world behind the fur coats. I’m no Narnian scholar, not even an expert, but I know what I’ve taken away from the books, and how it’s changed what and how I want to write.

I could go on, but that would only serve to cheapen the books I’ve mentioned. I think, as I look back on it, while I’ve loved a great many books and had certain epiphanies as I read or shortly thereafter, none have impacted me as much as the three I’ve mentioned.

But in the spirit of knowing and learning, indeed in the spirit of Gary Wills, I would like to ask: what’s the most influential book you’ve ever read, and why?

Thank You, Walter and Patty Berglund

So I’ve been sitting in the hospital again all day, waiting while Rachel undergoes the second of her preventative surgeries, this one to remove the expanders and insert the permanent implants in her breasts. I’ve listened to the stories of the people around me, overheard some conversations whose participants were not concerned about others hearing, and I’ve watched the faces come and go like clouds in the summer sky. I’ve passed the majority of the time reading Jonathan Franzen’s newest book, “Freedom”, a most excellent (if somewhat profane) book on a regular American family.

And after reading the profoundly disturbing antics of the Berglund family, I’ve come to the conclusion: I love my wife so much that I cannot live without her. Don’t want to live without her. Won’t live without her.

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve not yet read “Freedom”, leave this page now. I’m going to touch on the book’s resolution, and I don’t want you screaming at me for ruining the book for you. So, once again, SPOILER ALERT!

If, however, you don’t even know what I’m talking about, have never heard of Jonathan Franzen or his latest little book, then read on. And consider watching Oprah; then you might have at least heard about this guy.

So, back to where I was.

I came to this conclusion about my wife after reading about Walter and Patty Berglund, two seriously flawed people (in that way that all people are flawed, only magnified) who cannot seem to be rid of each other, despite manifest reasons to do exactly that: be rid of the other. In reading Franzen’s marvelous prose, the two main characters of the book come alive with all of the suburban, polemic breath that we’ve come to identify as life these days; in fact, Walter and Patty are so marvelously fleshed out, you almost feel voyeuristic in certain sections of the novel, as if by reading Franzen’s words about imaginary people you’re somehow looking into their fenced in backyard with your high-powered telescope. But this life, this magnificent reality that Franzen creates, is what makes Walter and Patty so tragic.

And spurs realizations of your own.

Reading about the damaging, almost fatal, completely bizarre and hard to understand love that keeps the Berglunds together, I was compelled to consider my own relationship with Rachel. To examine the ways in which I love her. To imagine what my life would be without her. And ultimately to realize that we will be together always.

I’ve always known this, of course, but sometimes you have those moments of “what if”, those fleeting seconds where you wonder what would have happened if life had gone differently, if you had taken the door on the left 0r not made that phone call, you can find doubt setting in. And not the okay kind of doubt, the curious, demonic, hellish bad kind that can rip a person in two. And in those moments, as you realize the darkness that everyone has inside them, you wonder if it’s realistic to believe that a love professed between two people, who are bound to change and grow and become different over the years, can really last. It’s a question so profound, and so in need of answers, that the preeminent literary novelist of our times just wrote a whole book about it.

And in reading about Walter and Patty, in reading about these two colossally screwed up people who damage one another in horrible ways but still end up together because their love, no matter how demented, still conquers all…well, I realized that my love for Rachel, healthy and rooted in our faith in the All-Powerful God, will last just as long.

As they say, “When you know, you know.”

“Freedom” is not a novel that I would recommend for your church’s book club. It’s probably not anything that you would want your grandmother or children or judgmental neighbor reading either. I’m not here to praise it’s content – as I’ve said, everyone in this book is tainted and disturbed and ruined by the disease of more – but rather the questions that it makes you ask and the answers it makes you consider. This is literature doing what literature should do: push us to consider life.

Sitting in the waiting room, as far away as a spouse can possibly be from their mate, separated by walls and wires and anesthesia, I was reminded in the brokenness of two fictional characters how precious my wife is to me. And how much I love even watching her breathe, or laugh, or walk.

I am grateful for the reminder. And the confirmation.