The Woods, Part 1

woods1“Don’t go into the woods,” they said.

“There are things unspeakable that happen beyond the village wall.”

“I hear there are monsters,” another warned. “I’ve heard about how they’re waiting just inside the tree line to grab you and make you their dinner.”

“Oh, yes!” cried another, her eyes growing as big as saucers as she spoke (not really, but you know what I mean). “They have eyes that see in the dark and claws like razor blades. They will tear you apart slowly, drooling as they hear your screams. Then they will eat you and nothing will be left to show that you ever existed.”

The thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Not that I would be such a great feast, but I’d like to think I would at least be a tasty appetiser.

“Yes. yes! Beware of stepping off the narrow path,” whispered a tall, rather plain-looking woman whom I recognised as my schoolteacher. “Many have thought that there is nothing to lose, and these are the same who lost their lives to the terrible creatures of the woods.”

She continued: “The elders have a book in which they’ve written the names of all who have strayed from the one path to the river and have never returned . . .” (Her voice faded away as if she were channelling the spirit of one of the dear departed.)

Suddenly, as if she was snapping out of a trance, she turned and looked directly at me. “You knew Robert.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly..

Everyone knew Robert. He was the village clown-slash-idiot. Funniest guy I ever met. We used to love hanging around him. He was the life of the party because of his uncanny way of summing up every situation with the most hilarious comedic commentary. His jokes, though sometimes verging on the border of insults, had most of us in tears–and sometimes our sides ached for days.

“Yeah. Of course I knew Robert.”

“He went out into the woods one day . . . and  n e v e r   r e t u r n e d . . .”

True. We haven’t heard anything from Robert for around 5 years now. Once he went into the woods, a renewed fear became the norm in the village. There was debate over how this could have happened. Training was given in the used of swords, spears, and fighting skills. There was also a great ceremony about writing his name in The Book, and then the Town Crier went up and down the streets of the village, calling out a list of misdeeds of which the elders had declared Robert guilty: neglecting his family, turning his back on the goodness of his village, being enticed by a desire to know more than any mortal should know. The list went on, but it was all gobbledegook to me. His own family, while never ever recovering their former happiness, seemed to write him off and go on with their lives as if he had never existed.

“But what about the birds?” I asked. “They fly into the forest every day, and happily return the next day with full stomachs and cheery songs.”

“Of course they do,” an older woman called out from behind me. I turned. “They have a special spell cast over them and the monsters don’t harm them.”

“But what about the rabbits, the foxes, the deer . . .?”

“You’d better stop asking questions, sonny.” This time it was my Uncle Tony in his low, soothing–yet stamped-with years-of experience–voice. “We all want to know what happens outside our village wall, but that is a mystery that we must learn to live with. There are some things its best we don’t know. Surely the elders who have looked after us so well for the thousands of years would never want anything but the absolute best for us.”

Uncle Tony, although getting on in years, was sharp as a tack. Of anyone in the village, he was deemed to be the wisest and most revered. He had often spoken about the value of ‘staying with the family’ and being active in village life. He didn’t just talk about it, but he lived it every day. There was nobody who thought ill of this man. It was said his own son was one of those whose names were in The Book.

I nodded. More out of respect than out of a sense that I could agree with anything he was saying. After all, nobody–at least nobody in my memory–had ever really seen the elders. (There’s a story about the old baker who happened upon an elder about 70 years ago when he was delivering bread to the castle. Apparently he came back down the hill quite fearful and shaken and nothing he said after that ever seemed to make sense. Regardless, that was only hearsay, legend. Nobody made much of it.)

And so life in the village continued.

Every morning I watched the sun rise beyond the great woods and watched it cast its golden beams into the trees. I saw birds rise up out of the forest singing. I heard the sounds of animals greeting the dawn, and felt a growing sense of wanting to know what was beyond the village wall.

(To be continued)

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Beware of those who Shout the Loudest

Immigration ProtestsThe televangelist who preaches the loudest about the sin of adultery is discovered checking into a seedy hotel with a prostitute.

The preacher who decries most vehemently the homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is found to be having an affair with a young man in a nearby town.

The politician who campaigns on the ticket of ‘family values’ ends up having a fling with one of his staff, leaving his own family when it’s discovered she is pregnant with his child.

The youth pastor who is known for his long sermons to his youth group on the subject of purity winds up in prison convicted of sexually abusing a girl in the same youth group.

It appears that one very common tactic to distract folks from an unpopular action is to shout very loudly against whatever one actually practices.

And its not limited to sexual hypocrisy.

The alcoholic speaks the loudest about the evils of drink.

The obese woman preaches the message of healthy eating to her family.

The environmentalist makes regular use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in his garden.

Isn’t this a little like the Tupperware lady campaigning against the use of plastic? Or the oil company promoting electric cars?

There is a common misconception that being seen to loudly oppose something will make you more able to resist the temptation. It doesn’t.

But maybe it’s not about resisting per se, but being seen to be so much in opposition that people watching would dare not think you could actually do that.

If we have learned one thing from years of watching momentous ‘falls from grace’ unfold on The Evening News it is this: vehement opposition to a particular vice, addiction, or suspect behaviour often signals participation in the very thing being condemned.

We have learned well the lesson: Beware of those who shout the loudest. It’s they who (usually) have something to hide.

Perhaps this is what St Paul meant when he wrote: “Let your moderation be known to all.” In other words, don’t go overboard. Maybe he took his cue from the teachings of his Master, who instructed his disciples not to blow a trumpet when they gave alms and not to stand on street corners praying loudly. Instead, live a humble life before God and before others. Let your actions speak louder than your words (or trumpet).

In a world of biggest, greatest, loudest, richest and most bedazzling, may we have the grace to live quietly and let our deeds speak for themselves.

 

 

Morning

elijah-hail-28932-unsplash

Morning Poem (by Mary Oliver)

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

” . . . Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” 

I love Mary’s poetry. She has a way of painting a picture with the reader square in the middle of the scene. Here, it is morning. We see the rising sun, the trees, the pond, the lilies. There is the happy person swimming through the lilies or the one who is burdened with life’s circumstance, trudging along carrying the heavy “thorn.”

And, even if one is focused on the drudgery of existence and cannot see it, there is that voice within–that beast–that knows that this morning brings exactly what it needs, “Whether or not.”

Even if we don’t notice it around us, even if we have never thought we were worthy, even if we have never dared to pray, the morning arrives in all its glorious splendour.

As the writer of the Book of Lamentations penned:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; [God’s] mercies never come to an end–they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”

The new day lies open before us.

Whether or not we have ever dared to pray.

Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”

Cleaning Up

I’m into minimalism.

I can’t say I practice it well. I mean, I come from a long line of respected Michigan hoarders. Not in the Hoarders TV show sense, but in the “Let’s buy this / keep this because we never know when we might need it” way of collecting.

hoarders

So, while I continue to evaluate the things I own using the questions–

  • Is it used regularly?
  • Will it be used in the next month?
  • Does it bring me joy?

–I don’t go overboard like some Scandinavian hygge fanatic (although I believe strongly in these principles of living Danishly).

I’ve followed The Minimalists for years: read their books, listened to their podcast, watched their documentary. They were the catalyst that prevented me from joining my ancestors in their hoarding habits.

But . . . when Joshua and Ryan came to Australia earlier this year, and had a ‘show’ at a popular concert venue in my city, I didn’t attend. Not only were the tickets a little higher-priced than expected, but I was surprised to see a ‘meet-and-greet’ ticket for an additional hefty sum. It seemed to me that things were going a little too far and this was becoming a money-making enterprise beyond what had begun as a grassroots ‘live with less’ movement. Then they announced their move to L.A. and the setup of their own recording studio . . . The lure of celebrity for all intents and purposes, had found its prey.

I share this story to say this: sometimes things start off well and show a lot of promise. People are attracted to the potential of a simple idea. Then, before too long, the idea takes on a life of its own and starts expanding. People who originally had led a ‘back to basics’ movement start advertising, building, marketing, promoting and going on speaking tours.

It’s not simple any more.

‘How difficult is it to be simple?’ Vincent Van Gogh is claimed to have asked. It’s not hard at all, really. That is until you start buying into that rhetoric that tells you that this–what you hold in your hands right now–is not enough.

Churches, schools, charities and ministries–even well-intentioned business owners–start with simple core ideas surrounded by some amazing people and end up down the track as very large and complex structures, selling out their values, buying into the dominant popular culture or latest trend. At what cost?

‘For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his own soul?’ the Teacher asks.

When the soul–in this case a symbol of that amazingly simple core value–is lost, it doesn’t matter how attractive you look, how many books you write, how many venues you fill, how awesome your brand is, how much money you bring in, what celebrity status you might have, or what great buildings you build.

It’s time to clean up. To get rid of some of that junk you’ve hoarded. To ditch some (all?) of the labels you’ve accumulated. No, you really don’t need it all. In the long run, it’s not worth the cost. Maybe it’s time for a ‘packing party’ and a sell-donate-or-dump run. Hygge really does have its rewards. Perhaps, it’s time for you to take the advice of a wise old bear and get back to . . .

. . . The bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

 *  *  *  *  *

By the way, this is our 400th blog post! There has been a lot of water under the bridge since I started blogging several years ago! If you read through what I’ve posted, you’ll see some subtle changes in my life and way of thinking and some that are more far removed from where I began. I hopefully get around to telling you about these in the next hundred or so posts.

Peace.

Jon

Untitled

Sometimes life is rather plain, ordinary, characterised by keeping the status quo.

We wish it were exciting, full of adventure, high-energy, high-octane, a brilliant grand endeavour lived in full colour, Ultra HD, with cinema sound and Lucasfilm FX.

It’s not.

Even the most awesome lives lived can’t seem to measure up to what we wish for ourselves.

  • We wish for beauty, but find our cheekbones are too high, our nose too long, or our hair fast thinning.
  • We wish for adventure but, instead, find our lives an endless replay of sleeping, working, taking the kids to sports, dance or parties.
  • We wish for meaning, but end up spending 30 years in an average, repetitious job, stuck without promotion or further prospects beyond our cubicle in an office of 100 such spaces on the 13th floor.

In a library containing books of all genres, nations and ages, the story of our life seems to have fallen off the shelf, perhaps into the recycle bin, or (worse) still in the temperamental circuits of computer memory in a file called ‘Untitled.’

SarahPPatricia MacLachlan penned a story in 1985 called Sarah Plain and Tall about a woman who finds her way from East Coast Maine to the hard life of frontier America. She had answered a newspaper ad to be the wife of a farmer who wants nothing more from her than someone to do the cooking, cleaning and chores and be a mother to his two children. While not initially interested in love, having loved and lost once already, the farmer slides (inevitably–a classic novelist’s plot) into a romance that exceeds Sarah’s wildest imaginings.

While there is nothing unique about this story, it struck a chord with its audience so strongly that it developed into a five-book series (‘Saga’ is the bookseller’s term). Winning many awards, and achieving the ultimate reward of a movie deal, this story aims straight at the heart of all those who see themselves as, also, ‘plain and tall’–ordinary, unadorned and simple individuals whose own dreams were most often those of a handsome stranger finding in them that spark of delight and inner beauty.

But this is just a story. Or is this just a story?

It was written with a classic plot line that is known to sell books. Why? Because we all have a deep longing to be loved, valued and hear someone say, “You are mine.”

There is no elixir of love, no life-changing mantra, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, as taught by minimalists for centuries, there is more to be found in less.

This is our story.

It’s untitled. It’s raw. It’s evolving, growing, developing all the time.

Sometimes–no, make that much of the time–we need to disconnect from the world of celebrity headlines, news broadcasts, and the mindless stimulation of ads to become aware of the beauty that is found in a simple story, an unadorned life, in detachment from the need to have a label, or a title, on our Self.

We must learn, again, how to embrace the ordinary and be exactly who we are knowing that, despite how we look, feel or how our own story is playing out today, we are loved, valued and welcomed by a God who promises to be with us–us plain, ordinary, average people–always.

Stories

Oldthings

I just bought myself a typewriter.

“Seriously? Aren’t you the gadget guy?” you might ask. “Is this replacing your iPad?” (Ha ha. Very funny.)

When I recently visited my parents, I got into a conversation with my mum about her computer. She seems to have never-ending struggles with technology and it so happens I am her resident IT guy.

“I wish I had kept my old typewriter,” she told me, after another troubleshooting session on her seemingly-invalid PC.

I asked her why, with all the features of her new computer, she would want to go back to an old, cumbersome, temperamental beast like a typewriter.

So begun the litany of reasons.

In the end, it wasn’t so much about the computer, nor about its tech-unfriendly operator. It was about what the typewriter represented: a simpler, more straightforward time when no new operating system needed to be learned, no ‘shortcuts’ had to be memorised, and to ‘save’ something you typed it with carbon paper and filed the copy away in the beat-up steel filing cabinet next to your desk.

And the stories!

SctypeHer Smith Corona (similar to the one pictured) had years of history. She had bought it in the States in 1971 and it had travelled with us to Australia. On it she had recorded years of conversations to and from grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and extended family. No doubt every milestone in the life of our growing family had found its way through the keys to be clunk-clunked on to ‘onionskin’ paper (This translucent paper was apparently lighter in weight than standard bond paper and so she could include many more pages in the letter and still pay standard postage.)

Dad used it to type out his sermons and the occasional letter to his brother. I never asked him why he used a typewriter because it was obvious: nobody–not even himself, I think–could read his handwritten scrawl!

The familiar ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of the typewriter, the ‘ding’ from the little bell that signified the end of a line and the ‘z-i-i-i-p’ sound the carriage made as you flicked the carriage return lever to start a new line echoed through our house every day, providing a semi-rhythmical soundtrack to our family’s life.

When the Smith Corona’s keys had become so misaligned and its carriage started being cantankerous in its desire to let go of the paper at inopportune times, mum invested in an electric typewriter. Later, that was replaced with a Brother ‘Word Processor,’ and, finally, with a computer and printer.

The old things were thrown out, sold, or given to Goodwill to make way for the new, high-tech machines and the accompanying angst in learning new ways of doing stuff.

I reckon it’s amusing to see how we don’t seem to attach the same value to the new things as we did the old things.

They don’t seem to invoke in us the same feelings of nostalgia, the yearning for the days when life was simpler and when things were manufactured to do one job and to last for years. They don’t seem to tell the same stories we hear recited from the memory of things like manual typewriters, inky ribbons and rows of life stamped out on see-through paper.

Typewriters, books, LP records, mum’s ‘special’ china, keepsakes and even fragrances bring back to us a myriad of tales–myths and legends, epics and anecdotes alike–cascading through our minds about who we were and, ultimately, who we became who we are now.

I think about this as I type on my eBay trophy short, thought-provoking sayings–the kind of which can be found on the Instagram pages of most hipsters these days. I recall with fondness a life that was less complicated (I say this as I figure out–ironically using a YouTube video–how to insert a new $10 ribbon, which I had to source from the UK and get ink all over everything.)

And I think I’ve found the answer why older folks tend to hang on to the stuff from their life a lot longer than the next generation believes to be practical: It’s the stories they hold. And I’m finding, as I get older, my memory needs all the help it can get.