Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams & William Cowper - happy endings not for sale

 Most emphatically happy endings are not guaranteed in this life. Robin Williams has been haunting the shadows since I heard of his death. It seems so wrong wrong wrong.

Our grieving responses for him are so strange in a way. We did not know him, we only think we did because his life was public. But it wasn't really his life we knew - his private life,  we only knew his work with its staggering gift for making us laugh and yet the sadness in his eyes showed through. His gift was so enormous, it must have been been a burden to him and even to those who loved him. I wonder if he could he carry on a normal conversation or relationship without making it a stage for performing? It might have been difficult to be with him if he could never turn it off.

A friend, Steve Froehlich, sent this last week and I am passing the whole thing on because Robin Williams' death has made me think again about those who suffer from depression, and those who take their lives in desperation and silence and the few who note their passing because their lives were largely unknown. As Christians we take comfort. For God knows his children. He carries them Home. Perhaps for them we can see it as a beginning. A good beginning. One of healing and renewed energies and unexpected joy. Yes, I do believe.

Steve writes the following:

This is an excerpt from a blogger whom I read occasionally -- he's Anglican, like Cowper.  His remarks were prompted by the confluence of having sung Cowper's poetry last Sunday and Robin Williams' death.  I've made one addition to the closing paragraph, a change the author approves.

Steve F.
William Cowper. Did the artist pick up the sadness in his eyes?
"Sometimes a Light Surprises" by William Cowper

    Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
    It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
    When comforts are declining,He grants the soul again
    A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

    In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
    The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
    Set free from present sorrow,we cheerfully can say,
    Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

William Cowper was converted (in the crisis experience sense) while in an asylum after a suicide attempt. After that he was an evangelical. Not only an evangelical but a Calvinist. Not just a Calvinist but an experimentalist. He lived for awhile with John Newton. They wrote poetry together (though some think Newton was a drag on Cowper's poetry and that Cowper wrote best when separated from Newton). Though their friendship became somewhat strained, they remained friends.

[the blogger points to evidence of the oppression of legalism in Cowper's "A Living and a Dead Faith"]

    Easy indeed it were to reach
    A mansion in the courts above,
    If swelling words and fluent speech
    Might serve instead of faith and love.

    But none shall gain the blissful place,
    Or God's unclouded glory see,
    Who talks of free and sovereign grace,
    Unless that grace has made him free!

But there's more to Cowper's life...and death....  His last, and, some think, his best poem was written in 1799 (he died in 1800). It is based on an account he had read of a sailor who was swept overboard in a storm. According to a witness the man swam and stayed afloat for awhile, could not be rescued, watched as the ship moved further away, and finally drowned. Cowper describes the feelings the poor sailor may have had, but in the last two stanzas turns to his own situation, first identifying with and then separating himself from the sailor:

    I therefore purpose not, or dream,
    Descanting on his fate,
    To give the melancholy theme
    A more enduring date:
    But misery still delights to trace
    Its semblance in another's case.

    No voice divine the storm allay'd,
    No light propitious shone;
    When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
    We perish'd, each alone:
    But I beneath a rougher sea,
    And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

The last two lines reflect a statement Cowper had made in 1793: "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar.  I am a castaway, deserted and condemned."

Cowper's pre-evangelical-conversion suicide attempt was the first of several. There came a point at which the despair finally descended not to lift the rest of his life. So far as we know, Cowper died believing himself doomed. That's not the way Christian biography is supposed to end.

Though Cowper died thinking himself damned Newton did not think so.  He believed Cowper woke, no doubt to his own surprise, in glory.

One of Cowper's poems, addressed to Newton the former seafarer, describes the difference between himself and Newton. It also describes two poles of Christian experience:

        That ocean you of late survey'd,
        Those rocks I too have seen,
        But I, afflicted and dismay'd,
        You, tranquil and serene.

        You from the flood-controlling steep
        Saw stretch'd before your view,
        With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
        No longer such to you.

        To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
        Upon the dang'rous coast
        Hoarsely and ominously spoke
        Of all my treasure lost.

        Your sea of troubles you have past,
        And found the peaceful shore;
        I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
        Come home to port no more.


I don't know the how or the why of Cowper's life and despair. Nor do you. Here is a comment that makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith and points to the real difference between the depression of Robin Williams and William Cowper is to be found essentially in Christ now and experientially only in eternity:

"All men are tragic figures. Artists have a deeper sense of their own failings and helped us to sense our own. Robin Williams was funny because we saw the conflict in him - funny, joyful, silly, simple conflicted with a dour drug user, with a broken family whose wrinkly eyes made you either want to melt with mirth or explode with sorrow. He was a tragic figure, and we sensed it, because he showed us the tragedy of who we are. In Christ we have already been freed from this tragedy, just not yet."

My favorite Cowper hymn is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." I will continue to sing these verses:

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.

    His purposes will ripen fast
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flower.

[For some a light will surprise "the Christian while he sings." For some the rain does fall with refreshment and relief.  But,] for some those big clouds of mercy will break in the age to come. Some will behold that smiling face in heaven. For some the bitter bud will yield to the sweet flower in the world to come. Not till then.  [The blogger would have done well to end where he started by affirming that for some, "Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings"]

So I hope.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coffee for Toadies

It's been a long time since I posted anything about coffee, even though I think about coffee and drink it every day. My newer readers may wonder what's with the name of this blog. Toads Drink Coffee. A few coffee spammers must wonder too, because I never accept their invites to try coffee. Their very special, very damned special coffee from all over the world. If they offered it free, maybe.

 First of all the name. I know. It is obscure and not as funny as I once imagined. We lived in a house called "Toad Hall" for many years. So would toads live in Toad Hall? Well, yes, I'm pretty sure, but when I mentioned to my husband that we were getting kind of old, wrinkly and warty and to be nice, I said I could fit that description, not mentioning him, he still didn't like the association. But the truth is, we are sort of toady and we both happen to love coffee. Good coffee. Hence, this name. Now that we no longer live at Toad Hall the name is a little problem. We lately moved to a new spot called "The House Between." But the same people who love coffee live there.

The summer hasn't been excruciatingly hot so far - heat always makes iced coffee that much better, but even on cool days, Denis makes iced latte from the coffee concentrate we make. It is ultra, ultra, I mean ultra smooth. Not a hint of bitterness or acid and many of the unwanted oils are removed in the process of making it when we use the Toddy Coffee Maker.

It's easy.

1. You do need the Toddy Coffee Maker which consists of a plastic container with a felt filter and a stoppered hole in the bottom. And a nice glass carafe.

2. Take a pound of ground coffee - almost any kind will do. (It doesn't have to be made from the fresh-roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Beans I order from Zanzibars Coffee Adventure in Des Moines, IA. I'm ashamed to admit to this sorry burden. As if confession lessons my guilt?) Place it in the plastic container with the felt and stopper in place.

3.  Fill water to the line and let it sit for 24 hours.

4. Pull out the stopper and let it drain into the glass carafe and you are done.

It keeps in the refrigerator for a long time. Weeks, I think. It is very concentrated so use it sparingly. Add hot or cold water to make Americanos or just a cup of coffee. Add milk to make a latte. I need to use soy or almond milk. Experiment to get the right proportions.

Here is Denis making his daily drink.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014 Blog Tour - Writing in the Cracks

Nancy Nordenson, a writer friend, invited me to join a blog tour - called The Magical Mystery Tour - about the process of writing, not the Beatles. Not sure the exact meaning, except that writing often feels like someone needs to sprinkle magic on my words or they won't be readable.

Nancy is a respected Medical Writer and essayist, the author of JustThink, Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul, and of the forthcoming Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work andLeisure. Her blog is called Just Thinking where she does her creative writing. To read her answers click on her blog.

I am honored to be asked by Nancy and in a sort of pass-it-on style I'm to tag two more writers who can join the tour and spread the magic. However, I've been so out of touch with other bloggers, they've finally all left me. However, I do know one person who will do a terrific job on this tour and has graciously agreed to join. (Please see more on Jenni below.)
New office in "The House Between." No excuses now.
I often write in the cracks of life - about something as ordinary as weeds, the weeds you try to pull from the sidewalk in your front yard. This is how I answered the questions:

1-What am I working on?
2-How does my work differ from others in its genre?
3-Why do I write what I do?
4-How does my writing process work?

1. What am I working on?
Perhaps answering these questions will inspire me to finish working toward my current deadline.
Right now, this very minute I should be rewriting an essay to be included in a collection coming out later this year called Real Life at Toad Hall. Yesterday, I thought we would need to leave this one out because I began at point A and switched directions so many times without logic or warning it would confuse a gyroscope. I wondered how I could have published it in the first place. It made me feel desperate. I don’t think of killing myself, but I would like to kill something, maybe an earwig. I am three days past my editor’s deadline and it looks like it  will take longer, with at least three more to wrangle.  A break to join this blog tour may be just the thing that helps.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I write memoir and personal essay with an emphasis on narrative. But I have trouble clarifying how it differs from other like writing. Perhaps it’s a self-image issue. My step-dad used to say, “Girl, you’re not half so smart as you think you are.” In a way, I grew up believing some of that and fighting with it. Foundational to all my writing is the issue of faith and spirituality – how it shapes and informs all parts of life. When my memoir The Exact Place was published, I learned there are many who dislike memoir with good reason. They find many of them self-absorbed or insufferably bitter. Somehow, I avoided that while writing about difficult things at the same time. In both memoir and in my personal essays, which for many years have appeared as “Notes From Toad Hall,” I strive for honesty. I especially think that many of us who claim Christianity struggle with letting others see us – flawed and intemperate as we are. So it is important to me that we challenge that image and yet find hope that helps us continue our journey. I don’t think this desire is unique to me. Each writer has a distinct voice that is important to find. Mine doesn’t sound that memorable to me, but at least I recognize it, and will keep practicing the scales and singing the songs, trying to get it right. That’s not a bad thing.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I think it is very connected to what I mentioned already about being honest. Honesty is stronger when it is united with a desire to love others, not just bash them with the truth. Honesty is not just telling every detail about the troubles you have, either. But I guess we know that, don’t we? So, what motivates me is… well, let me go back for an example. When I was newly married, we attended a church and saw mature couples all nicely dressed sitting beside one another in the pew, the husband’s arm around his wife. No one ever, EVER breathed a word about the troubles a couple might face in getting along with one another. I know that was way back in the day and some things are a lot more healthy and open now. I knew the inside of some of these homes, they were not as pretty as they presented. When my young husband and I faced bumps, there was nowhere to go for mentors or models. Sometimes in desperation I yelled at my husband; “I wish I were a guy and I would so beat you up.” Yes, yes, I know. Abuse. I want to write to give people hope that we are not alone, that there are potentially other ways of looking at things. I want people to know there may not be answers, but there is Someone who is not surprised by any of our scheisse and loves us still.

Weeds in the cracks
4. How does my writing process work?
I am pathetic. Writing is the hardest work I do. I often avoid it at all costs, I will be out pulling weeds from the cracks in the sidewalk when I should be writing. I write at the computer, but revise and edit on paper. The internet has infinite ways of destroying my concentration. I shut off email when the burden to write grows heavier than I can bear. It can’t be dinging at me when I’m trying to compose. I stare out the window. Wipe the crumbs off my keyboard. Chew the eraser heads off pencils. Because I live with some physical issues, I need to set the timer to make myself get up and walk around every so often or my muscles freeze. When I face a blockage, I know that to get past it I HAVE to live with it. So I sit and fidget with the piece and tell myself I am not allowed out of my chair for one whole hour. I may do nothing more than shift a comma, but I don’t let myself leave until the time is up. Then I reward myself with a piece of chocolate and a cup of coffee. It is a mystery to me how this can work, but it actually, usually, often, gets me past the wall.

Jenni Simmons, who wears many hats as an editor and writer, is up next. She is editor of Arthouse America Blog, and just recently became general editor for Kalos Press. Jenni is also a seasoned tweeter and instagramer with an eye for beauty found in everyday places.