The War On Drugs…

No, I’m not talking about that war, which is tantamount to a war on the people. I am talking about the band – The War On Drugs. Had it not been for the sage advice of my younger brother Sam I would never have heard of this band. Now that I have had the chance to listen through their albums, all I can say is this band is drips with artistic, musical, and lyrical excellence. If you are a fan of Bob Dylan, especially his later collaborations with Daniel Lanois (e.g. Time out of Mind), you are going to dig The War On Drugs layered tracks that blend old-school devotion to the craft with a cutting-edge sensibility. That said, sometimes there are songs that hit like a carpet bomb of beauty with an incandescence that is so radiant it aches. Instead of waxing rhapsodic, I’ll cut to the chase here – the lyrics to the track ‘Strangest Thing’  on their recently released album A Deeper Understanding that hit me like a sledgehammer, here’s a sample:

I recognize every face

But I ain’t got everything I need

If I’m just living in the space between

The beauty and the pain

It’s the strangest thing

 

Here’s the track in full, enjoy:

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Fire Raged on the Eastern Hills…

Image result for guejito witch creek fire

The Guejito Fire of 1993 and the Witch Creek Fire of 2007 that burned in and around North San Diego County were seared in my memory in ways that defy analysis. Anyone who has witnessed a natural disaster – fire, hurricane, blizzard, tornado, earthquake, or tsunami will likely agree that this is the case. These fires have been burned in my artistic subconscious and influence what I write and how I write in ways I cannot adequately explain. There is a distinct linguistic power God has placed in nature that I think lies behind any serious attempt at writing.

Last week there was a fire burning on the western edge of Murrieta (where I now live) that prompted me to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Damned May Enter. This is a particularly important passage that sets the tone and symbolism that I try to sustain throughout the book. For my fellow writers, I hope that this serves as a small inspiration of the power of memory and nature in shaping fiction:

Fire raged on the eastern hills of Escondido, illuminating the night sky. Angry halos glowed red against the orange capped peaks as they shot sparks out into the darkness like charged particles in the blackness of space. The flames poured down the mountains in front of the furious gusts of the Santa Ana winds blowing in from the California desserts. Had these mountains been volcanic, once might think they were belching magma, sending lava and ash flowing down into the populated inland valleys. Yet the fire was not in the heart of these mountains, they were burning because of the old growth chaparral that clung to their slopes, giving its dense brush to the flames.

On the hills a pitched battle was being fought between man and this force of nature. Whether or not the impending apocalypse would consume the city below was still an open question. The sky echoed with the syncopated thumping of helicopter blades and droning propeller blades as areal firefighting squadrons bombed the encroaching flames with retardant and water. On the ground, firefighters dug trenches and cut lines in the chaparral to create a no-man’s land, separating themselves from the onslaught of noxious smoke and consuming fire. Like soldiers on the bloody grounds of Verdun, they dug in to face the enemy’s advance with abandon and resolve. They were the thin line that kept the hellfire on the hills from overrunning the homes in the valleys and burning all the way to the shores of the Pacific. In the face of nature’s fury, these brave men lifted up their prayers into the smoke-choked night for respite from Santa Ana’s gales and steeled their nerves to face the fires, come what may.

The Brandt brothers watched this infernal drama unfold from the back porch of their home, which offered a panoramic view of the hills to the east. There was something both terrifying and sublime in the carnage that could not be ignored. Standing mesmerized on the porch, they couldn’t have taken their eyes off of the flames if they wanted to. It was as if such displays of power and violence demanded witness. The call of impending destruction went out to all onlookers, imploring them to look upon this strange and horrendous beast nature had conjured to show humans their place in the order of things. In the face of such indifferent power a man is reminded that he is small and frail; that he lives in a vast, wild world which defies all his pretenses to control. The imperatives of nature rise up before the Brandts’ eyes demanding reverence and awe.

For those of you who have been following the progress of my book, I am in the re-write stage as I shape my manuscript for editing, which will happen after the first of the year Lord willing. This thing will get done sooner or later! Anyone who tells you that writing a book is easy is either writing a bad book or is lying or both… with that I am back to my little world of words. I’ll check in again soon.

Henri Bergson, TS Eliot and Time

There are certain pieces of literature that have an inescapable gravity. For some time I have been fixated on TS Eliot’s masterpiece, Four Quartets. Eliot draws off of a cacophony of settings and images in a polyphonic witness to Christianity in the modern era. The further I have delved into Eliot’s work, the more acquainted I have become with some of his sources. One of the towering figures in Eliot’s intellectual heritage was the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was married to the cousin of the great novelist Marcel Proust, and his philosophy had a marked impact on Proust’s work In Search of Lost Time. My quest to understand Eliot has lead me to read some of Bergson’s philosophical writings, where he elevates the place of intuition in the quest for knowledge, and ponders the human experience of time. The following line from Eliot’s first poem in Four Quartets, Burnt Norton is quintessentially Bergsonian:

Time past and time  future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

In Four Quartets, the term ‘point’ has a two-fold use. Eliot’s first use describes ‘point’ is a vector which can point toward or away from something in the human experience of time. The second, and use is ‘point’ as the fixed axis around which everything rotates, like the hub as the immobile ‘point’ of the wheel. Eliot takes this up in his rendering of the eternal point around which everything moves. Take for example his musings on the Christian notion of how God’s a-temporal eternity transects human time in his lines, also in Burnt Norton:

     At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh, nor fleshless;

Neither from or towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor

towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

 

In Bergson’s seminal essay, “An Introduction to Metaphysics”, he describes analysis as an important mode of inquiry of knowing about an object that is abstracted in time. However, for Bergson, analysis can only ever lead us to know about an object (persons, places, scientific discoveries, etc). In order to truly know and object, one must dispense with mere analysis and engage in an intuitive process that includes a sympathy for the object known. I find this to be much closer to the biblical concept of knowing, which is fundamentally relational, and never merely a series of propositions that can be analyzed. It is one thing to know about God through theological inquiry and analysis, it is still another thing entirely to know him truly. In the final estimation, God has revealed himself in Jesus, everything that the Father thinks of himself he has spoken in his Word (the Divine Logos) who was Incarnate in space and time when the Word was joined to human flesh in Jesus. Faith is, in some senses, very much similar to the sympathetic/intuitive process of knowing that Bergson describes. I could write much more on this, but for now I will share a sketch of a reflection – a ‘wild and wandering cry’ to steal one of Tennyson’s lines – that I came up with the other night as I search out what it means to be both a Christian and an artist:

The mists of memory are all of the past that remains in the present, yet in that cloud the present takes shape and moves in time toward the future. Time defies all analysis. Any knowledge of duration is the soul’s province. It is through the subrational and suprarational intuitions that cannot be touched by the empirical process that knowledge-of begins to take shape. The facts of the past are always debatable, and as Napoleon famously noted, history is a set of lies that everyone agrees upon. Certainly this is, at least in part true, but Napoleon lies even in his attempt at the truth. That the events of human experience actually occurred is a fact that cannot, in the final estimation be disputed. But, what these events were and what they mean in the present can only be known through a recursive and sympathetic intuition where the artist more than the historian; the poet more than the journalist; the mystic more than the dogmatist can render with prophetic prescience the reverberating inflections of meaning – a narrative of hope or of doom or of both.

The artist understands that historical persons are more than facts of history, they are characters. These characters, all individuals really, are part of an unfolding story that can be grasped through empathy and intuition. People and events are a nexus of dynamism, full of potential and contradiction that play a vital part as the story of history is being drawn to its conclusion, the very end for which the story exists. The end of all history is in its beginning, where the Word of the Father is spoken and Incarnate through the Spirit, is both Alpha and Omega. All things are summed up in him because all things are spoken and exist in him. The language of nature and the song of the soul belong to him, and their melodies, harmonies, discords, and crescendos can be heard in the inaudible echoes of eternity. The Word spoken and the Word Incarnate are one in the same. He is the fixed, eternal point around whom all time and all who exist in time dance, and to whom all things point. In him all time points to its beginning and its end, and he is and always will be known in the present which transects both time and eternity.

I don’t know if any of this will ever make much sense to the reader, nor am I sure it makes much sense to me. But, as Tennyson says in his Preface to In Memoriam:

We have but faith, we cannot know,

For knowledge is of things we see,

And yet we trust it comes from Thee,

A beam in darkness, let it grow.

 

 

 

In the Beginning – An American Myth

In the Beginning – An American Myth

 

When you’re going to hit something on the nose, hit it hard and fast and often.

— Aristotle… or Confucius (whatever, I found the quote on the internet)

 

… Only the flicker

Over the strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies empty of meaning…

— TS Eliot from Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets

 

In the beginning the American Man created the suburban home. The world was a scary place, full of people who didn’t think or look like him. So, he sat on his La-Z-Boy and brooded over the chaos, thinking on what he might make of it.

Then he said, “Let there be a flickering light that will echo and shout by day and by night; that will tell me what to think, what to drink, and what to buy.” So he divided the noisy light full of pictures and words and sounds into little screens of their own and called it TV. Later that day, Best Buy delivered and installed all his new stuff. Morning and evening passed without notice, and time no longer mattered so long as the TV was on. That was day one.

The next morning, after he checked his emails and Twitter feed he said, “Let there be a white picket fence around my property to let everyone know that this is my stuff, and let it keep the immigrants and weirdos out.” Then he guzzled a six-pack in the mid-afternoon and passed out in his La-Z-Boy. So, his wife went to the Home Depot parking lot and hired some Mexicans to build the fence. That was day two.

Late the next morning, nursing a hangover, he said, “Let there be a cartoon of a ranch home, poorly built and almost identical to fifty other units in this sprawling subdivision where I can eat, sleep, shower, shave, and shit without being disturbed. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, let the best of the farm and the wilderness be combined in the worst way possible and let it be called the yard. And make sure the front-gate stays closed so the neighbor’s stupid dog doesn’t take another steaming turd on the lawn.” That was day three.

The next morning, he awoke in a cross mood and said, “Dammit, the TV’s not enough in this Information Age. Let there be laptops and tablets and smartphones and let their bright screens rule the day and night. Let their noisy speakers fill every room in this house so my family can ignore each other in peace.” Morning and evening were again forgotten as every eye and ear in the house were filled with information and images without ever enduring the nuisance of being informed. That was day four.

The next morning, he said, “This McMansion is the size of a Bronze-Age palace, but it seems empty, what it needs is more stuff. Let there be a fully-furnished dining room that no one will ever use. Let this house teem with marble and granite and hardwood and a wet bar on the patio with a barbecue and an outdoor entertainment system, and let there be a wet bar in the man-cave as well so that there will be nowhere in the house where we can’t try to forget what we refuse to remember. Let us finance an abundance of useless crap that we cannot afford so that we are shackled to debts we can never repay: toys, toys and more toys, gas guzzling SUV’s and jet-skis, and snow-mobiles, and motorcycles so that we can persist in the illusion that usable energy is inexhaustible, and the myth that we are most happy when we cannot be still. The American Man looked at all of his stuff and told himself and everyone else that it was good, and he hoped that this was true. That was day five.

The next morning the American Man ripped a bong-load of legal marijuana, and as he ate his Cap’n Crunch he said, “Let’s have a couple of kids, because I guess that’s what we’re supposed to do now. We’ll pump them full of psychoactive pills and teach them how to navigate the carrots and sticks, the hamster wheels, and the smoke and mirrors of the American Dream so they can feel hollow like everyone else.”

He took another hit and said, “Let us create social-media platforms in our image. Let us post pictures and tweets and thoughts and competitive fantasies to the faces we call friends. Let these friendly abstractions share their perfect fictions with us and let us agree to the delusion that these insecure projections are real. Let us constantly check our feeds for likes and retweets and heart-shaped emojis that mimic significance. Let us cast our glittering icons and endless words into this virtual world that insulates us from a silent universe that screams out to us in a language we refuse to learn.”

The American Man reclined in his chair, uneasy from the sensation of an actual thought. Then he inhaled another bong-load and played video games for the next six hours. Finally, the he rose from his La-Z-Boy and looked at all that he made and spent his life in furious pursuit of and went to the refrigerator for a box of wine and soon forgot what he was thinking about. In no time at all he passed out in his chair with a plate of nachos on his belly. That was day six.

Thus the cosmic suburban bubble was complete and crammed so full of stuff that the American Man could barely perceive the emptiness that filled it all.

By the seventh day the American Man was spent from his toilsome week on his La-Z-Boy. He told himself that he needed time for himself to ‘just chill’. So, he hallowed the seventh day with guacamole, bean dip, and a case of strong ale and watched football from morning to night. The day had ended, and for some reason something in his soul still ached as he staggered to bed, so he resolved to knock himself out and downed a Xanax with a shot of whiskey and drifted into a dreamless sleep.

… then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity.”

— Ecclesiastes 12:7-8

© Jedidiah Paschall

 

Through the Wilderness

“The wilderness is the route of promise on the way to the land, or the wilderness is unbearable abandonment to be avoided by return to slavery.” – Walter Brueggemann

One of the important themes I deal with in my forthcoming book The Damned May Enter is the concept of the wilderness. I deal with it most directly in narrative sections surrounding the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. One of the reasons why I was drawn to the wilderness is because I believe it is one of the few fundamental paradigms that is descriptive of the life of faith. Robert Capon calls Scripture a treasury of icons that God has given us to mark out the great themes and episodes of life in the Kingdom of God: Eden, an Ark upon the Floodwaters, a Burning Bush, the Exodus, a Mountain of God, a moveable tent of his presence, a Temple on Zion as the capstone of the City of God, a Prophet who calls fire from Heaven on false gods, exile, a cross, a slain lamb who is also a Lion, and more. The wilderness is the context of the individual, as well as the community in the presence of God, as we journey to the Promised Land. The wilderness is simultaneously a place of negation and of abundance, of destruction and formation.

The wilderness as an icon of  our journey with God leads us into the negative space of the desert, where resources are scarce and trials are constant. The principle of life that defines us and animates our self-understanding are slowly, seemingly mercilessly stripped away. We are challenged in our core about our notions of what life actually is, what its irreducible meaning is. Only in this process of laying bare our false assumptions about life, and about God are we prepared to experience the abundance that can only be found in a desert life. Here we are dependent on bread from heaven, not the work of our hands to meet our most basic needs. Here we are called to leave behind the mentality of slaves (to sin and fear and doubt) so that we can grow as warriors who are able to do battle in and for the Land we have been promised. God draws us out into the wasteland to destroy our false notions of what life in his Kingdom is really like, and to form in us hearts that long to live in that Kingdom and to see it actualized in both individual experience and community life.

Of course, this is why the temptation narrative of Christ in the wilderness is so important. In every way Jesus succeeds where the people of God have failed. Adam falls in paradise, and Christ is victorious in the wilderness. His forty day sojourn mirrors the forty year wanderings of Israel in the desert, and he is, by virtue of his faithfulness to the Word of God at every point, is recapitulating and summing up a restored Israel in himself. This New Israel is an echo of all that was good and promising in the Old, redeemed of the failures in the wilderness and would forevermore be comprised of both Jews and Gentiles as the newer and fuller Israel of God. We are called to navigate our own wilderness, our own painful trials, following Christ and participating in his victory. We are not left to our own devices to succeed in the wilderness, to somehow summon the moral or spiritual fortitude to emerge victorious, we are called to follow the One who calls us into his victory.

I know that the wilderness has been a paradigmatic spiritual experience in my own life, and that I have only recently, over the past couple of years, begun to embrace the wasteland as a place where an abundant life can be had in Christ. Pain and trials still persist, but so does hope. In my worst moments I forget this and turn my focus inward to my own aching heart or outward for some distraction that will hold the bewildering trials at bay. However, on my best days I face the blistering heat of the wilderness crucible with acceptance, and even thanksgiving, knowing that I cannot become what the Lord intends me to be in the chains of Egypt or in a Land I am not yet ready to enter. His tabernacling presence is with me, his bread feeds me, and I am given all I need to place one foot after the other and glimpse in some small way the light that shines over the hills that surround the Home I will spend my whole life journeying toward. Here the wilderness is transformed into a garden, and my desert is not a desert at all.

 

Perception and a Poem

There is a language that God has spoken in all things, in people, in nature, in experience that I long to see and hear and express. So I reach out and try to connect these to metaphors and narratives and sketches like a journalist reports the news. As I approach the completion of The Damned May Enter, I find the need to extend myself as I work through some of the more critical parts of the book. This has driven me to attenuate my senses so I can receive the words I cannot grasp through thought alone. So, I have ventured outside the confines of the book by regularly drafting sketches from my window. The desk where I write sits below the lone window in my room, and I sit and look and write what I see and reach out to find the meaning God has written in his creation. These efforts stand adjacent to my book, but I hope they enhance my vision and capacity to perceive. So I offer this encouragement to my fellow brothers and sisters who are also compelled by the pen – learn to see and hear the Word that suffuses everything seen and unseen, heard and unheard. It is a perilous task to open your heart to the world, but it is the only way to hone your craft and share it with the people who just might need to hear your voice.

So I offer this poem. I don’t write much poetry these days, and I’m not so sure it is any good. That seems to be quite beside the point. It is drawn from my window sketches and I hope it might spur my friends who also write, many more gifted than I, to pay attention to the world around them. Meditate on what you see and hear and try to capture in some small way the beauty that hovers all around you. Sorry about the formatting, WordPress wasn’t cooperating, but here it is imperfections and all:

Window to the Night

Fading marmalade drips down the evening horizon,

pressed under the black and blue curtain of night.

Trees rise upward into the dark,

many handed javelins in light’s last breath,

their inky shadows stain the hills beneath them.

Sunscape’s sharp distinctions blur;

the nocturne kingdom descends

and draws up unspoken secrets

from the land it touches.

Crickets sound and resound syncopated lullabies

while the world drifts to dreams.

 

The peculiar mystery of the day,

singular and nevermore

moves from present to past;

to memory

or forgetfulness,

held in the mind or released or both.

Lonely eyes alone can hear

the wordless language of the sky,

the rhythms of time present

and time gone by.

 

 

 

Extrusion – The Creative Process

Hemingway once noted to the effect how he loved being a writer, but that the paperwork killed him, and I definitely identify with that. As I continue to grapple with the act of creating, I have been thinking a great deal about what that act is, and what it feels like. There is nothing easy about creating a work of literature, music, or art. Ease in creation belongs to God alone, for mortals it entails the pain of labor and the ability to feel – feel a good many things both pleasant and unpleasant, while remaining constantly mindful so that the thing created does not become unwieldy or nonsensical.

This is why it has occurred to me that the creative process is extrusive in nature. To extrude, is to force something out. Extrusion, in a manufacturing context involves pressing a material, metal for example, using incredible force through a die to create the finished product. Copper pipe is made through the extrusion process, where the solid metal is pressed through a circular die to create the pipe. The die determines the shape and diameter of the pipe. Creation is similar, the raw material of ideas, paint, or musical notes are pressed through the die, which I take to be the artist’s conception of his work, to produce the creation in its final form.

Extrusion as a creative act is both measured and forceful, a product of tremendous effort and focus to forge the creation from the raw material of ideas and inspiration. While artists, writers, and musicians may seem to be an eccentric bunch, they must possess discipline and control in order to create anything of value. If their work is of any enuring quality, if their creation has any chance of surviving them it must possess this extrusive quality. The emotive, affective, and intellectual inspiration that lies behind and within their work can only be felt and appreciated by those of us who benefit from their creations if it was pressed through their conceptual die with force and pressure. I am convinced this is why we can feel what Van Gogh sought to capture in his paintings, what Beethoven sought to evoke in his symphonies, what Keats communicated in his poetry.

I think this lends gravity to the act of creation, and presents a daunting challenge for those inclined to create. Creation isn’t easy, and most artists concede that there is an element in their work that is inseparable from themselves as creators. Rarely, if ever is art the byproduct of pure and instantaneous inspiration. Of course inspiration lies behind all good art. But, this inspiration is extruded through the creative process where the artists thoughts, feelings, hopes, and aspirations that may originate in that eternal realm of ideas are pressed through the die, and with it the artist may feel that he is pressed with them in order to arrive at the final work.

So, I must remind myself that this painful process of extrusion is part and parcel of the writers journey to create something that can be rightfully called art. For my friends that write and create, I offer this simple encouragement: embrace extrusion. There is a price to be paid to create anything of worth, but that precious price is what gives us a voice in the world, and the privilege of enriching the lives of those who enjoy our work.