Tuesday, June 28, 2011

thesis defense

I had my thesis defense on Monday. It was a good experience, a very good experience, for me. Not at all the scare-fest I thought it would be. When I first began my master's degree, one of the things I was sure I didn't want to do was defend a thesis, and that was why I chose the project option. The idea of standing in front of a committee of learned scholars and being grilled was a scary thought that made my stomach lurch in nasty ways. I would rather eat sushi (for those of you who know how much I dislike the Japanese fast food, this is a rather strong statement).

I have moments when my mind goes blank. I struggle to remember names and dates. For some reason, my mind likes to file away important, general information in a storage facility where it is very hard to access at short notice. Also, I have been known to easily get distracted and lose my train of thought. All of these can be deadly in a defense situation where one needs to be able to respond quickly to challenges and questions in order to demonstrate a broad knowledge as well as insightful depth regarding the subject of their thesis.

About a year and a half ago, one of my professors challenged me to reconsider doing a thesis. He is a very persuasive man and what he said made a lot of sense, so I gave it some serious thought. Shortly after that conversation, I was watching the movie Invictis and had an epiphany about not making choices based in fear (you can read a bit about it here). I realised that I had taken the project route because I was afraid to defend a thesis, and as someone who desires to live life without fear, I saw clearly that I had to change my course of study. So I started down the thesis road, a road which is ended on Monday.

To my surprise, I had no fear going into the defense. I was well-prepared, I knew my topic, and I knew I was in a room with friends. The kind of friends who are rooting for you, but who challenge you, who gently point out your mistakes, and who won't let you get away with doing less than you are capable of. I love all that these teachers have brought to my life in the past few years. And love is always stronger than fear. The three professors who questioned me were not trying to trip me up - they were giving me a chance to prove to them and to myself that I had mastered a subject. Of course, there is still plenty I don't know, and when the questions ventured into territory that I was unfamiliar with, I stated as much. Knowing where your knowledge ends is as important as knowing what you do know. And I surprised myself with how much I did know and was able to articulate not only clearly but with confidence and conviction.

In a preliminary thesis proposal that I presented in December, I made the claim that if I could learn to love Evelyn Underhill (my thesis subject), then I could understand her and learn from her. And I believe this is my strength as a student and a somewhat unlikely theologian: I learn by loving. Because I have found that love enlarges not only your heart, but your mind and your capacity to understand.

This is a photo of one of the books that I cited in my thesis.

By the way, my favourite book of Underhill's is The Fruits of the Spirit. It is a short, easy read that demonstrates her remarkable ability to fuse profound spirituality with everyday life. Plus, you get to experience her distinctive early 20th century, middle-class London style of writing. Read it sometime if you can.

Friday, June 24, 2011

another lesson from the metro

I know people who struggle with depression. I also know people who suffer from positive thinking. At the risk of being over-simplistic, both of these tendencies (at least to me) ring of untruth in their own way. I always seem to be at a loss for words in the presence of super positive people. What can one say to someone who will only see what they want to see? Likewise, I have little to offer those who are trapped in despair, teetering on the edge of blackness. Maybe a hug or a sighing prayer.

I was on the metro a few days ago and they were having some problem with the automated voice that announces each upcoming station. I was deep in a book, as usual, and relying on the voice to let me know when I was approaching my stop. However, this time when the train left the station, the voice spoke some very unfamiliar words. I stopped reading and wondered if I had inadvertently stepped on the wrong train. I checked the metro map and found that the female voice was announcing stations from another part of the underground system altogether. The voice then began to announce, in rapid succession, all the stations at the other end of the line.

It was disconcerting to be hearing these strange words. It made me check twice when we pulled into a station to make sure I was on the right track. Yes, it was indeed the station I wanted to be at. Things were pretty much normal and as they should be, but hearing the voice give me continuous conflicting information was quite disorienting.

And I guess this is what I feel when I hear people talk in overly positive or negative ways. I look around me and see that what is actually happening does not quite relate to what they are saying. The words don't match the present reality. I understand there are times when we speak of things that we hope for. We are perhaps trying to align our thoughts with where we want them to be, but no amount of saying "I am at metro Cadillac" will put me there. I actually have to go there.

I also understand that pain can cause us to view things in a distorted way, seeing actual or potential wounds everywhere. But no amount of saying "Metro Namur is being swallowed into a black hole" when I have just pulled up at that very station will change the fact. Positive thinking is not faith and negative thinking is not doubt. Both just reveal how badly we see, and perhaps admitting this goes a long way to having our eyes opened to what is in front of us. And that is the good and the bad, the possibilities and the disappointments, the love and the fear, all somehow encompassed within the great and good hands of God.

Today, I am preparing for my master's thesis defense which is a mere 3 days away. I have many people telling me I will do just fine, and I appreciate their support. But honestly, I know that unless I study and prepare, I am not going to arrive at the "do just fine" station. Saying it does not make it so. Unless you are God, whose words and actions are one. I am not, so I have to stick with taking this journey one station at a time, one day at a time, and hopefully, one truthful moment after another.

May I learn to see the truth better so that I can speak it and live it.

This is a photo from a recent walk I took through a field. Buds, seeds, grass, trees, all at different stages of their life.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

pilgrimage

One of the things I hate about writing (okay, maybe dislike is a more accurate word) is the number of drafts and edits it takes to come up with something that resembles a coherent and thoughtful piece of work. Another discouraging factor is the amount of time I spend spinning my mental wheels before I come up with an idea that is worth writing about. Hamster time is that period when I go 'round and 'round, trying a thousand different stories in my head, sifting through endless scenarios and possible themes before one of them actually appears feasible as well as interesting. It seems like time wasted, but it is, for the most part, the necessary process to arrive at the one idea that works.

This weekend, I have been working on a writing project. I had some inspiration on Friday night while I was talking about it with some of my friends, and I thought it would be a simple thing to put a few lines on paper. I did put some words on paper on Saturday, but after a page of scribbling, I realized that it was not going where it needed to go. And I seemed to have lost the spark of inspiration I had the night before. Argh! Tonight, I gave it another go. I took a different approach and came up with another page of phrases. But they, too, were lifeless. Not what I wanted at all.

I hate this part of writing. It is so demotivating, this part where I fail 2 or 3 or even 5 times before I get on the right track. But there is no shortcut. Aside from the rare occasion, I need this failing, de-cluttering process. These fails are the weeds that I need to cut down in order to see the flowers clearly. Yes, today I wish I could skip right to the beautiful, precise prose I want to write instead of wading through the swamp of fails, but the fails are part of the cost of good writing (of which this is not really a good example if you consider the mixed metaphors).

This morning, our faith community went on a mini pilgrimage together. Our goal was to trek to the lookout at the top of Mont-Royal. We took 1.5 hours to get there, and along the way we laughed, prayed, stopped and marveled, talked about life's challenges, walked in silent contemplation, listened, and journeyed together. By the time we reached our destination, we were already rich with what had transpired along the way. Pilgrimage, like writing, is a complete package. Path and destination cannot be separated from each other. Stairs must be climbed, winding roads plodded along, switchbacks made at times, steps retraced when necessary. Sometimes we have to wait. Sometimes we find ourselves hurrying. At all times we try to accommodate and help our fellow travelers. And in the process, we get closer to where we are going.

Right now, I am two fails closer to a good piece of writing. Time to try again.

This is a busy squirrel we saw on the trek up Mont-Royal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

knowing when to stop

Sometimes life just seems bizarre. While some people are laughing and partying and watching a sporting event in one part of the world, others are dying in street skirmishes in a war-torn region. While one teenager plays video games and drinks Coke and thinks about nothing more than unlocking the next level, another adolescent faces painful surgery and possible life-altering complications. While a new baby is born into one loving family, another dies from neglect, hunger, or worse. At any point in time, we find ourselves touched by the good, the bad, the ugly, the painful, the funny, the overwhelming, the surprising, and the sweet. On good days, I can see some grand cohesion between these multi-dimensional aspects of life, but many times, I find myself puzzled or even at odds with what is happening.

This is a joyful time in my life; I am about to graduate with my MA and have a summer of relative ease before I plow into doctoral studies in the fall. I find myself laughing and dancing and being silly (just check out my last blog for proof of this). However, some of my friends are in painful seasons of life, and I wonder if my lightness of spirit is inappropriate in view of the larger suffering of humanity. But I don't believe in a communist-style equalisation of experience where we dial down the exuberance of some in order to temper the sorrow of others. No, please no. I want my grief to be fully grieved, but I also want to let my joy be explosively enjoyed. Let my love be gratuitous and indulgent, as love should be. Let my pain be borne with honesty. The richness and maturity of life depends on letting each colourful experience have its moment. And knowing when those moments are done.

I was taking the subway downtown yesterday, deeply immersed in a new book. I had my pen and paper out, taking notes. I lost track of time and when I looked up, suddenly found myself arriving at the station where I had to catch a connecting train. I wanted to finish my sentence, my thought, the word I was writing, so I continued what I was doing. The metro car stopped. The doors opened, and I knew I had to stop immediately or I would be stuck on the train, going in the wrong direction. I grabbed my book, paper, pen, jacket, and backpack, clutching them all in my arms in one big messy bunch, and scrambled off the train. A connecting subway pulled away in front of me just after I exited the car. Sometimes it can be annoying to miss a transfer, but this time, I was just happy that I managed to get off. I needed a bit of time to collect myself before getting on the next train.

And I thought about this urgency I felt to get off - to be willing and able to stop and leave a place when it was time, even if I didn't feel I was quite ready. Sometimes the journey is not so much about moving forward, but about getting off and stopping. Because if I continue on, I will end up where I don't want to go. Staying too long in sorrow turns into depression. Living too long in grief leads to bitterness. Remaining in party mode for too long makes one numb and irresponsible. Joking about everything stunts my ability to deal with reality in a compassionate way. Always talking about my past failures or successes means I never get off that train and as a result, don't go anywhere. Being stuck in editing mode means I never finish writing.

Stopping. Sometimes it is the hardest thing to do. But it is necessary to stop what we are doing, how we are reacting and thinking, because one mode, one train, cannot get us where we want to go - to living a full, rich, meaningful, maturing, loving, giving, life which belongs to God. There is a season for everything in such a life as this.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. ...
[God] has made everything beautiful in its time (From Ecclesiastes 3, NIV)

This is a photo of one of the cars on the street during the Grand Prix celebrations in downtown Montreal last weekend. It was stopped, and good thing too, because there were pedestrains all around it.

BONUS VIDEO: For a good example of silliness and wisdom each in their own time, but still together, watch Conan O'Brien's recent convocation speech at Dartmouth:

Monday, June 13, 2011

I Think I Can Dance

Here is a short video I made while letting my supper burn on the stove. Just for fun!


video

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

one moment please

Some years ago I worked as a receptionist at a window factory. My very first day at work I attended a seminar for receptionists. In this room surrounded by a hundred or so women who spent their days being the first point of encounter for various companies, I learned the magic of the word "moment." We were taught never to use phrases that referred to seconds or minutes because these measurements were too exact, and we would invariably disappoint some impatient customers who would take the phrase "just a minute" literally. Instead, we mouthed the magic, indefinite word "moment" together, savouring its immeasurable limbo.

The thing about a moment is that while it is a brief but undefined period of time, it usually carries a defining quality. We all remember moments in our lives when things changed. When we changed. I came across two such moments this week that have remained on my mind. One was the unfortunate hit that a player from the Vancouver Canucks hockey team made on Bruin's team member Nathan Horton during a recent play-off game. The hit was late, hard, and rendered Horton limp on the ice. In a moment, both Horton's and Rome's lives were changed in some way. Horton was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion and Aaron Rome was suspended for the rest of the play-offs. One brief moment.

Another defining moment I read about this week was the story of Achan in Joshua 7. During a battle between the Israelites and the town of Ai, a man named Achan came across some very tempting, but forbidden items: a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels. The soldiers had been informed in no uncertain terms that they were not to take any of the plunder from the city for themselves, but in a moment, Achan decided that he would try to get away with it. He snatched the precious goods and hid them in his tent. A short while later, 36 men died in battle because of his disobedience. A brief moment of pleasure cost 36 men their lives.

The things we do in these defining moments reveal a lot about us. The decision to instigate a hit even when the player no longer has the puck, or the decision to take something that is not ours just because we think we can get away with it, indicates that something is rotten deep down at the core of our character. In defining moments like this, our true nature comes to light; it is naive to think that what happens in these moments pops out unexpectedly without warning. No, we build these moments from our daily thoughts, our deepest desires, our secret fears, our buried anger, our hidden insecurities, and our willingness or frigidity in the areas of trust and vulnerability.

Mistakes do happen. Yes, unfortunate and puzzling circumstances sometimes align to produce devastating results, but I believe we are remiss if we do not own the part we play in tipping a moment one way or another. In an age where individualism is the starting point, it is sometimes difficult for us to acknowledge the impact we have on our intentional and accidental communities. Two people exchanging mean words on a bus affect the whole tone of that temporary community, while one teenager giving up his seat for a pregnant woman causes a ripple effect of small acts of kindness. I know; I have seen it.

Let me set my thoughts on those things which are pure, lovely, and good. Let me release my fears and plant faith instead. Let me desire to serve others instead of only myself. Let me find my security in being loved by God. Let my anger be only against injustice and let it never overrule mercy. Let me trust a heavenly Father enough to act like nothing in life is ever outside of his goodness, even when I can't see it. Let me be found in each moment drawing from a deep well of peace and grace. Amen.

This is a photo of my watermelon plants which had their defining moment of appearance yesterday.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

see-through

I have been looking through some of the pictures I took on our road trip to the East Coast this past weekend. The scenery through northern Maine was beautiful, as was the foggy, rugged landscape of New Brunswick. We didn't have a lot of time to trek around outside, so many of the pictures I took were through the windshield of a moving car. Now that I take a closer look at the the photographs, I can see all the bug guts splayed on the windshield, distracting from magnificent sunsets and lush greenery. I also notice all too many blurred images that indicate we were rushing past some amazing scene at high speed, and all I could do was capture an indistinct representation of its uniqueness. Sigh. Such is life. We see indistinctly and we hurry through.

I often view the beauty of this world through the bug-spatter of my life's idiosyncratic paradoxes. Incredible scenes play out before my eyes even while small deaths are happening all around me. And if I am not attentive, brief moments of touching poignancy which whiz past me without any fanfare, can be lost. I do not always see clearly. Life is messy and my eyes are often drawn to the mess instead of the beauty behind it. Sometimes I get tired of constant change and the speed of life and can miss the fleeting moments of unexpected, simple splashes of colourful inspiration along the way.
Two things I do know: my myopic eyes can never diminish the beauty that is always present, and my undisciplined attention span cannot negate a moment of divine synchronism. Beauty and defining moments will follow me all the days of my life. Will I choose to dwell with them?
Pictures along the way:
1. Sun going down in rural Quebec. Rain splashes and bug guts in the foreground.
2. Two bikers that we followed for many miles through small towns in Maine. They, no doubt, got more acquainted with the bugs than I ever did.
3. One of the bright, quaint, homey houses we passed along the trip. I just barely managed to capture part of it.
4. I never did get my camera out in time to snap a photo of the small herd of deer nor of the moose at the side of the road that we saw one morning in New Brunswick. Fortunately, not everything needs a picture to remember it by.