A friend recently posted a sign which said, "Trump took ... the united out of the United States."

The illogical falseness of that statement jumped out at me, and believe me, my friend is smart, so I know she must also have seen it. Most memes of that sort aren't even trying to be logical; they're trying to make a point.

Nonetheless, my first reaction was to ... react. To respond with a comment.

Then I remembered that I am fed up with arguing, and am trying a new approach.

When I comment on someone else's blog, or social media post, I am stepping into his space and time. Would I ring my neighbor's doorbell and tell him, "I see you're getting your house painted; that's a terrible color!" I think I can do better than that. If I have no positive comment to make, much better I should say nothing at all. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop commenting—I know myself too well for that—but I hope to be more positive, more relevant, and more personal when I do, conscious that I am walking through someone else's yard. 

My own space, however, is a different story. Here, on my blog, or on my own Facebook page—that's where my own opinions belong. If people find my posts interesting, or helpful, I'm glad. If they do not, they are free to walk away. When I first began writing this blog, I had hopes that it would become (among other things) a forum for debate and discussion of issues. Now that I've seen what that looks like on Facebook, I'm rather glad it mostly has not. The more experience I have, the more I realize that people long for information, and can be persuaded by information—especially when accompanied by personal testimony—but are rarely moved, except possibly in the opposite direction, by argument and debate. Maybe it wasn't always so, but it certainly is now.

Back to the original inspiration for this post: the idea that President Trump had divided America. I think that's completely wrong.

The election of President Trump, if you will, is evidence that America is divided. All close elections are. When you win a close election, the first thing you should realize is that half of the country is unhappy about your victory. Even should you win an astonishing 75% of the vote, you still will have ticked off a quarter of the voters.

America has always been a country of deeply-felt and deeply-divided opinions. Even a small study of history—in my case, genealogy—makes that obvious. The difference now, as I see it, is that instead of expressing our opinions to a few neighbors, we tell them to the world.

As I do here.

Perhaps I am as guilty as President Trump of dividing America.

Here's a Pearls Before Swine comic, from August 26, 2018, still appropriate to the day. (Straight from our refrigerator to you.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 31, 2020 at 9:58 am | Edit
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Category Random Musings: [first] [previous] [next] [newest]

I needed to hear this. The speech itself is about paying reparations for slavery, and it's a good one, but you can ignore that part. That's not the point of this post and I don't want it to turn into a discussion of that issue. Agree, seethe, fume, cheer, ignore—whatever you want. Just keep that part to yourself.

I've started the embedded video at about the 4:50 point, at Elder's description of what it was like for his father to be poor, black, illegitimate, and homeless at age 13—in Athens, Georgia at the start of the Depression.

It's good to be reminded once again that I could put a little more effort into the struggles I dare to call "work."

I've transcribed what that man had to say to his son:

I want you to follow the advice I've always given to you and your brothers. Hard work wins. You get out of life what you put into it. ... You cannot control the outcome, but you are 100% in control of the effort. And before you complain about what somebody did to you or said to you, go to the nearest mirror, look at it and say, "How could I have changed the outcome?" And finally, no matter how good you are, how moral you are, how ethical you are, bad things are going to happen. How you respond to those bad things will tell your mother and me whether or not we raised a man.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 28, 2020 at 5:17 pm | Edit
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Category Inspiration: [first] [previous]

I can't believe it has been more than two months since my last COVIDtide status report. Porter, bearing in mind 1816—the Year Without a Summer—calls 2020 the "Year without a Year." Life goes on, but without the events that usually divide and mark our years.

Our planned family reunion in April screeched to a halt when our borders closed and the Swiss folks couldn't make it. Then no one else could make it either. Then most of what we were planning to do closed, anyway. Doctor's appointments were cancelled. Church choir, a big part of our lives, stopped. Church itself went online. Regular restaurant dates with friends were no more. In July we were to have celebrated our first nephew's wedding, in Connecticut. They still had the wedding, but with only a handful of people in attendance, and postponed the reception a full year. Our annual Independence Day band gig was cancelled. Our scheduled European cruise and our visit to Switzerland were cancelled. Plans to celebrate a granddaughter's birthday in person were scrubbed. Our Thanksgiving traditions that have been in place for decades now look very unlikely. So far the only annual event that has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has been hurricane season.

Not that we're wasting away at home—there's always plenty to do here—but it IS hard to keep track of time when one day is so much like another.

Be that as it may, we are slowly emerging from hibernation. Doctors offices are open now, albeit with new restrictions and procedures, so that blessed time of not having to think of personal medical issues has passed. We've now had dental cleanings and annual physicals, and I restarted the process of getting cataract surgery, which I had not been sad to forget for a while.

Our music director, impatient with choir practice having been reduced to a weekly Zoom chat, dug out the children's hand chimes and started an adult "handbell" choir. They're not bells (our church doesn't have any), but they ring, and I'm thrilled to be making music again at last. Now once a week I get out to something besides the grocery store!

Porter, however, is the one who has become really adventurous. Long before the pandemic, he had signed up to be a census enumerator, but the process ground to a halt before it could properly begin. I'm not sure I see the logic of halting the census here in Florida when our case numbers were low and our hospitals empty, then restarting in in the middle of a much higher wave of COVID cases, but that's what they did. About three quarters of those who had initially signed on for the job quit, unwilling to take on the risk. Porter was not one of them, and has been working for three weeks now.

There's plenty I could say about the census process, but not in this post.

That's about it. Our big September adventure, instead of a Baltic cruise and visiting grandkids, will be the above-mentioned cataract surgery, which involves two surgery days and at least five other visits, not even counting the ones that I'd had pre-pandemic and needed to repeat. I'm not complaining—several positive changes have been implemented since my first try at this. It just puts me in mind of what my mother-in-law used to say:

I'd have taken better care of myself if I'd known that my social life would consist primarily of visits to the doctor.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Edit
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Category Hurricanes and Such: [first] [previous]

I read and reviewed The Fall of Heaven in 2017, having no clue at the time how much closer America would come to this perilous situation in just three years. It's time to revisit that review.

Please read this book. It was recommended to me by two Iranian friends who suffered through, and escaped from, the Iranian Revolution. Thus I give it much higher credence than I would a random book off the library shelves. If they say the reporting accords with their own experiences, I believe them. They are highly intelligent and well-educated people.

I cannot overstate how important I think this book to be for here and now in America. Who our Ruhollah Khomeini might be I do not know, but I look at the news and am convinced that the stage set is a close copy of that in Iran 40 years ago, and the script is frighteningly similar.

Those who are fighting for change at any cost need to consider just how high that cost might be.

 


 

altThe Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt, 2016)

People were excited at the prospect of "change."
That was the cry, "We want change."

You are living in a country that is one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. You enjoy freedom, education, and health care that was beyond the imagination of the generation before you, and the envy of most of the world. But all is not well. There is a large gap between the rich and the poor, and a widening psychological gulf between rural workers and urban elites. A growing number of people begin to look past the glitter and glitz of the cities and see the strip clubs, the indecent, avant-garde theatrical performances, offensive behavior in the streets, and the disintegration of family and tradition. Stories of greed and corruption at the highest corporate and governmental levels have shaken faith in the country's bedrock institutions. Rumors—with some truth—of police brutality stoke the fears of the population, and merciless criminals freely exploit attempts to restrain police action. The country is awash in information that is outdated, inaccurate, and being manipulated for wrongful ends; the misinformation is nowhere so egregious as at the upper levels of government, where leaders believe what they want to hear, and dismiss the few voices of truth as too negative. Random violence and senseless destruction are on the rise, along with incivility and intolerance. Extremists from both the Left and the Right profit from, and provoke, this disorder, knowing that a frightened and angry populace is easily manipulated. Foreign governments and terrorist organizations publish inflammatory information, fund angry demonstrations, foment riots, and train and arm revolutionaries. The general population hurtles to the point of believing the situation so bad that the country must change—without much consideration for what that change may turn out to bring.

It's 1978. You are in Iran.

I haven't felt so strongly about a book since Hold On to Your Kids. Read. This. Book. Not because it is a page-turning account of the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which it is, but because there is so much there that reminds me of America, today. Not that I can draw any neat conclusions about how to apply this information: the complexities of what happened to turn our second-best friend in the Middle East into one of our worst enemies have no easy unravelling. But time has a way of at least making the events clearer, and for that alone The Fall of Heaven is worth reading.

On the other hand, most people don't have the time and the energy to read a densely-packed, 500-page history book. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or work with children, I say your time would be better spent reading Hold On to Your Kids. But if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I strongly recommend reading the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.

A few brief take-aways:

  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly an amazing, wonderful person; as my husband is fond of saying, the best ex-president we've ever had. But in the very moments he was winning his Nobel Peace Prize by brokering the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David, he—or his administration—was consigning Iran to the hell that endures today. Thanks to a complete failure of American (and British) Intelligence and a massive disinformation campaign with just enough truth to keep it from being dismissed out of hand, President Carter was led to believe that the Shah of Iran was a monster; America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, likened the Shah to Adolf Eichmann, and called Ruhollah Khomeini a saint. Perhaps the Iranian Revolution and its concomitant bloodbath would have happened without American incompetence, disingenuousness, and backstabbing, but that there is much innocent blood on the hands of our kindly, Peace Prize-winning President, I have no doubt.
  • There's a reason spycraft is called intelligence. Lack of good information leads to stupid decisions.
  • Bad advisers will bring down a good leader, be he President or Shah, and good advisers can't save him if he won't listen.
  • The Bible is 100% correct when it likens people to sheep. Whether by politicians, agitators, con men, charismatic religious leaders (note: small "c"), pop stars, advertisers, or our own peers, we are pathetically easy to manipulate.
  • When the Shah imposed Western Culture on his people, it came with Western decadence and Hollywood immorality thrown in. Even salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people can only take so much of having their lives, their values, and their family integrity threatened. "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations."
  • The Shah's education programs sent students by droves to Europe and the United States for university educations. This was an unprecedented opportunity, but the timing could have been better. The 1960's and 70's were not sane years on college campuses, as I can personally testify. Instead of being grateful for their educations, the students came home radicalized against their government. In this case, "the Man," the enemy, was the Shah and all that he stood for. Anxious to identify with the masses and their deprivations, these sons and daughters of privilege exchanged one set of drag for another, donning austere Muslim garb as a way of distancing themselves from everything their parents held dear.  Few had ever opened a Quran, and fewer still had an in-depth knowledge of Shia theology, but in their rebellious naïveté they rushed to embrace the latest opiate.
  • "Suicide bomber" was not a household word 40 years ago, but the concept was there. "If you give the order we are prepared to attach bombs to ourselves and throw ourselves at the Shah's car to blow him up," one local merchant told the Ayatollah.
  • People with greatly differing viewpoints can find much in The Fall of Heaven to support their own ideas and fears. Those who see sinister influences behind the senseless, deliberate destruction during natural disasters and protest demonstrations will find justification for their suspicions in the brutal, calculated provocations perpetrated by Iran's revolutionaries. Others will find striking parallels between the rise of Radical Islam in Iran and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who have no use for deeply-held religious beliefs will find confirmation of their own belief that the only acceptable religions are those that their followers don't take too seriously. Some will look at the Iranian Revolution and see a prime example of how conciliation and compromise with evil will only end in disaster.
  • I've read the Qur'an and know more about Islam than many Americans (credit not my knowledge but general American ignorance), but in this book I discovered something that surprised me. Two practices that I assumed marked every serious Muslim are five-times-a-day prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. Yet the Shah, an obviously devout man who "ruled in the fear of God" and always carried a Qur'an with him, did neither. Is this a legitimate and common variation, or the Muslim equivalent of the Christian who displays a Bible prominently on his coffee table but rarely cracks it open and prefers to sleep in on Sundays?  Clearly, I have more to learn.
  • Many of Iran's problems in the years before the Revolution seem remarkably similar to those of someone who wins a million dollar lottery. Government largess fueled by massive oil revenues thrust people suddenly into a new and unfamiliar world of wealth, in the end leaving them, not grateful, but resentful when falling oil prices dried up the flow of money.
  • I totally understand why one country would want to influence another country that it views as strategically important; that may even be considered its duty to its own citizens. But for goodness' sake, if you're going to interfere, wait until you have a good knowledge of the country, its history, its customs, and its people. Our ignorance of Iran in general and the political and social situation in particular was appalling. We bought the carefully-orchestrated public façade of Khomeini hook, line, and sinker; an English translation of his inflammatory writings and blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran came nine years too late, after it was all over. In our ignorance we conferred political legitimacy on the radical Khomeini while ignoring the true leaders of the majority of Iran's Shiite Muslims. The American ambassador and his counterpart from the United Kingdom, on whom the Shah relied heavily in the last days, confidently gave him ignorant and disastrous advice. Not to mention that it was our manipulation of the oil market (with the aid of Saudi Arabia) that brought on the fall in oil prices that precipitated Iran's economic crisis.
  • The bumbling actions of the United States, however, look positively beatific compared with the works of men like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, who funded, trained, and armed the revolutionaries.

I threw out the multitude of sticky notes with which I marked up the book in favor of one long quotation from the introduction.  It matters to me because I heard and absorbed the accusations against the Shah, and even thought Khomeini was acting out of a legitimate complaint with regard to the immorality of some aspects of American culture. Not that I paid much attention to world events at the time of the Revolution, being more concerned with my job, our first house, a visit to my in-laws in Brazil, and the birth of our first child. But I was deceived by the fake news, and I'm glad to have a clearer picture at last.

The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah's human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women's rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi "oppression." But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that the could not match the victims' names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978-1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. that meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. [No, I can't make those numbers add up right either, but it's close enough.] The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi's revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. "The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made," observed historian Ali Ansari. ... Baghi's report exposed Khomeini's hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the vey moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah's fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure [instead of the rumored $25-$50 billion], hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.

Baghi's research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi's reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi's estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 22, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Edit
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Category Reviews: [first] [previous] [newest] Politics: [first] [previous] [next] [newest]

This more recent (primary) election left me seriously wondering, for the first time in years, if I need to switch parties.

I picked up one candidate's material, which said (roughly) "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things." So I picked up the opponent's material, and saw "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things."

Hmm. So I dug deeper and looked at the positive side, what they had to say about themselves, what they were bragging about.

And concluded that each was correct in his assessment of the other.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 20, 2020 at 9:11 am | Edit
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For tomorrow's primary election, I voted by mail.

Rather against my better judgement, I admit, as I far prefer in-person voting and that only on the "real" election day. I did "early voting" once and it felt so false I never did it again.

I have voted absentee before, and felt okay with that. In fact, that's why I had a mail-in ballot for this election: given our schedule—or what used to be our schedule, pre-pandemic—I didn't want to find myself disenfranchised by being out of town. What I've done before when I have been at home on Election Day is to vote at my local polling place and have them nullify my mail-in ballot there.

I've voted in person once already during this COVIDtide, and felt at least as safe as I do grocery shopping. But this time, I figured it would be good to practice the new system when it barely mattered—the Democratic primary for a few local seats. I have to say it's more complicated and a whole lot less fun than going in person and chatting with the precinct workers, but it seems okay.

If people are honest.

I know mail-in voting somehow works well in Switzerland, but it still makes me nervous to rely on it here on a large scale. Election fraud is nothing new, and is possible no matter what system you use. My father used to tell stories of the days when votes were openly bought. But mail balloting does seem to me to be more open to fraud—particularly to coercion—than in-person voting. You can force or trick someone into voting a certain way a lot more easily when you can see what they're marking—or even mark it for them and force them to sign—and mail the ballot yourself, than in the privacy of a voting booth. How do we prevent that? Don't tell me there aren't plenty of unscrupulous people with that kind of power over others.

Our registration procedures have become very lax in recent years. According to a poll worker I know and trust, one person in his experience was mailed a ballot to vote in Florida, and was at the same time registered (and planning) to vote in New Hampshire. She had no idea she was even registered to vote in Florida; the best guess is that it happened automatically when she applied for a Florida driver's license. I see nothing in the process that would prevent her from voting twice, except her own honesty. I also don't see how it happened, since Daniel Webster (who is my favorite congressman because he was instrumental in making home education legal in Florida decades ago) assures us in this op-ed article that, unlike some states, Florida only sends mail-in ballots to those who request them. But something went wrong for this woman, and I foresee a lot going wrong all over the country, both by accident and by malicious intent.

Why, in some states, are people being mailed ballots who did not request them? All those extra ballots floating around is just asking for trouble. Really, if people are willing to go to work, and the grocery store, and doctor's offices, and restaurants, and bars, and parties—why are we pushing vote-by-mail instead of in-person?

In Florida, anyone who wants a mail ballot can request one, and I appreciate that service, but I am strongly convinced that the normal path for voting, the one that should be encouraged above all others, is in-person, on Election Day, where photo-identification and private booths do their best to ensure that a legitimate voter is casting a secret ballot.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 17, 2020 at 5:44 pm | Edit
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I think America owes ISIS an apology. We were so self-righteous over their destruction of ancient monuments—sometimes more upset by that than by their destruction of people. Now we are doing it ourselves. If the history isn't as old as in the Middle East, it's the same abominable impulse.

That's as heavy as this post is going to get. On the lighter side, here is a word for our modern iconoclasts from Psalm 105, at least as interpreted by Sunday's church bulletin.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 6:53 am | Edit
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Category Random Musings: [first] [previous] [next] [newest] Just for Fun: [first] [previous] [next] [newest]

It was written in 1992 and set in 1145, but the situation discussed in these excerpts from Ellis Peters' The Holy Thief—part of her Brother Cadfael series—sounds as fresh as this morning's dawn.

Robert Bossu This has become a war which cannot be won or lost. Victory and defeat have become alike impossible. Unfortunately it may take several years yet before most men begin to understand. We who are trying to ride two horses know it already.

Hugh Beringar If there is no winning and no losing, there has to be another way. No land can continue for ever in a chaotic stalemate between two exhausted forces.

Robert It has gone on too long, and it will go on some years yet, make no mistake. But there is no ending that way.

Hugh What does a sane man do while he's enduring such waiting as he can endure?

Robert Tills his own ground, shepherds his own flock, mends his own fences, and sharpens his own sword.

Hugh Collects his own revenues? And pays his own dues?

Robert Both. To the last penny. And keeps his own counsel. Even while terms like traitor and turncoat are being bandied about like arrows finding random marks.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 10, 2020 at 4:14 am | Edit
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One of the advantages of following the recommendations to stay at home is that I have been making progress at processing old photographs.  I was recently struck by the shirt our grandson was wearing on a cruise with us in January 2019.  It seems innocent enough.  It was most likely a hand-me-down and celebrated something unknown to me and maybe even to him.  However, given today's climate, where people have been assaulted over mask issues, I'm guessing it's a good thing he has probably outgrown it.  :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 7, 2020 at 8:31 am | Edit
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Category Hurricanes and Such: [first] [previous] [newest]

As I neared the end of my C. S. Lewis retrospective—reading (mostly re-reading) all the books we own by or about the prolific author—I was challenged by my friend, The Occasional CEO, to relate a few of the most significant things I have learned from Lewis. I began with the idea of trying to distill a Top Five from his many areas of influence in my life.

It soon became clear that of everything I have learned from Lewis—from faith to literature to history to the changing meaning of words to the critical importance of one's model of the universe—two stood out, orders of magnitude greater than the rest. 

All is gift. I am Oyarsa not by His gift alone but by our foster mother’s, not by hers alone but by yours, not by yours alone but my wife’s—nay, in some sort, by gift of the very beasts and birds. Through many hands, enriched with many different kinds of love and labor, the gift comes to me. It is the Law. The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not his own.” (Perelandra)

The first gift I received from C. S. Lewis was his Narnia stories. I was introduced to them in mid-elementary school: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a gift from my mother, who brought it to me in a stack of books from the library when I was sick in bed. The remainder of the series came about two years later, a gift from a neighbor, who owned all seven and shared them around our group of friends. I was delighted, enthralled. However, my attempt to find similar delight in his other fiction was at the time unsuccessful. I tried the first of his Space Trilogy, but I was a hard-core science fiction fan—Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke—and Out of the Silent Planet was not sufficiently science-based for me. One of Lewis's earliest books, it lacks the beauty and enchantment of the Narnia stories, and was intended for an adult audience. I have since come to enjoy it, but I wasn't ready then.

I rediscovered Narnia in college, thanks to the University of Rochester's Education Library, which was well-stocked with children's books. There I also first encountered Mere Christianity: the gift of my roommate, and my introduction to Lewis's nonfiction. To my shock, there I discovered that all the delight—the goodness, truth, and beauty—that I had encountered in Narnia was for Lewis an expression of reality, a reality far greater than he could depict, even in fantasy. I came later to respect the background in Christianity I had received in my childhood, but it was through Lewis and Narnia that the reality of God began to make sense to me.

This is the first and great gift, and the second is like unto it.

I went on to read more of Lewis's non-fiction, and to gain from it, but his next pivotal gift came many years later, through a friend—all is gift—who shared with me Lewis's George MacDonald: An Anthology.

If Narnia had shown me a God who made sense of the world, MacDonald showed me a God I could love.

George MacDonald is another author I had met before—as a child through his Curdie books and At the Back of the North Wind—but I'd never followed through to find what else he might have written. To be fair to myself, his other books weren't easy to find back then.

Of MacDonald, Lewis wrote,

In making these extracts I have been concerned with MacDonald not as a writer but as a Christian teacher. If I were to deal with him as a writer, a man of letters, I should be faced with a difficult critical problem. If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages, many of them in this collection, where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament (it runs right through them from Dunbar to the Waverly Novels), sometimes an oversweetness picked up from Novalis. But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Lewis's preface to George MacDonald, An Anthology.)

MacDonald's works can be divided roughly into three parts, though they overlap: the fantasy that so impressed Lewis; books of sermons; and his many adult novels—the craft of which left Lewis so unimpressed—which served both to feed his family of thirteen and as vehicles for reaching a wider audience with his preaching. The last sounds dreary, but in reality the preaching is what makes his novels shine. (Those who know my lack of appreciation for most sermons will recognize the peculiarity of such a statement coming from me.)

Having been reawakened to MacDonald by Lewis's Anthology, I looked around for more, and the best I could find were modern re-workings of his novels, some by Michael R. Phillips and some by Dan Hamilton. I give credit to both authors for their obvious respect for MacDonald, and their faithfulness to his ideas, even though in their efforts they exaggerated the parts I like least from the originals (the Romantic elements) and reduced the best (the preaching). The library had most of them, and I wolfed them down.

Most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another.

The next contributor to my journey was a church secretary who had obtained photocopies of all three Unspoken Sermons books, which she graciously shared. I wonder if the generations who grew up with easy access to a universe of electronic resources can even imagine how valuable bound photocopies could be. Or what an incredible gift it was to the world when, in the 1990's, Johannesen began republishing all of MacDonald's works, in beautifully-crafted sets. All of these treasures were given to me, over several years of birthdays and Christmases, by my father. He himself had no particular appreciation of MacDonald—I doubt he read any of the books—but a great deal of love for his children and grandchildren, for whom I consider the collection a legacy. Now, Kindle versions of almost all of MacDonald's works are available at no cost.

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. 

Lewis is not exaggerating the frequency of MacDonald's influence on his own works. Having tackled my MacDonald retrospective first, I easily recognized his ideas and often his words when I encountered them in Lewis.

I know nothing that gives me such a feeling of spiritual healing, of being washed, as to read George MacDonald. (from a letter of Lewis to Arthur Greeves)

I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.

What greater endorsement could there be?

Lewis was puzzled as to how people could idolize him and ignore MacDonald. I have some ideas. MacDonald's books were old, even then—he had died before Lewis turned seven—and our society's "chronological snobbery" was well established. Although full of gold, many of his books are difficult to read, even those not laden with Scottish dialect. I can now say that it's well worth the effort, and the reading and understanding get much easier with practice. But I can't forget that I had actually encountered MacDonald's novels years before, deep in the stacks of our main college library. But apparently this, too, had to wait to be a gift rather than my own choice: to my everlasting embarrassment, I turned aside from those unattractive, ancient, brown, and dusty tomes. Perhaps it was the library's revenge that I later became a genealogist, whose blood now quickens at the mere scent of such books.

Then, too, from the beginning MacDonald was plagued by charges of heresy and branded "Universalist" for his belief that, in the end, God's love would triumph. Lewis did not see him that way, but it led (and still leads) some to dismiss MacDonald out of hand.

Reaction against early [strict Scottish Calvinist] teachings might ... have very easily driven him into a shallow liberalism. But it does not. He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent.

Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.

Inexorability—but never the inexorability of anything less than love—runs through [MacDonald's thought] like a refrain; "escape is hopeless"—"agree quickly with your adversary"—"compulsion waits behind"—"the uttermost farthing will be exacted." Yet this urgency never becomes shrill. All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder which prevents it from doing so. MacDonald shows God threatening, but (as Jeremy Taylor says) "He threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."

The effect of C. S. Lewis's writings on my thinking is incalculable, and not just from his most popular books. Who would have guessed, for example, that I would give a five-star rating to Studies in Words—a book on philology, addressed to scholars, of which I understood less than half? But I was fascinated, and my eyes were opened to the pernicious habit (especially common among both literary critics and high school English teachers) of simply seeking meaning in what we read, instead of seeking what the author meant by his words and what his contemporary audience understood him to be saying.

There's no doubt that Lewis was quirky, humble, and absolutely brilliant—all the more brilliant that so many of his writings were written to be accessible to the ordinary British public, yet there's no hint of condescension. I could start my Lewis retrospective over again from the beginning and learn a lot more.

But for all that, Lewis's greatest influence on my life came less through my mind than through my spirit. Lewis said that reading MacDonald's Phantastes "baptized his imagination." The Narnia books first, and then George MacDonald directly, did the same for me.

This surprising realization came nearly sixty years after my first encounter with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and was itself a gift—thanks to my friend's challenge.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 4, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Edit
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I think maybe this confinement is getting to me. It's not that I particularly miss going out, though I do really miss the good times we had getting together with other people. I love being home and have more work to do here than I could complete in a hundred pandemics. But I really miss church activities, and two opportunities have already slid by in which we would normally have gotten together with far-away family. At least two more are threatened. We have missed one wedding and are hanging onto hope for another. Our grandchildren have grown and changed so much since we saw them last! The year of 2020 will be the first year since 2005 I have not travelled out of the country to be with family.

I know, I know. Before anyone says it, I know we're still blessed beyond measure and I honestly expect much good to come out of this pandemic. Much already has.

And yet it's invading my dreams.

I love to be outside very early in the morning. Every day I go out to our back porch swing, and listen. I listen to the insects and the frogs, and to the armadillo as he waddles back to his den after his nocturnal adventures. I listen to the barred owls, and to the songbirds when they awaken. Though I don't listen for them, I can't help hearing the traffic noises, pool pumps, and air conditioner compressors. I listen to my own thoughts, and then struggle to still them and listen for the whispering voice of God. Sometimes, in my listening, I fall back to sleep, as I did today. And today I dreamed.

In my dream, I was also dozing. Not on the porch, but in our family room; I must have been doing some work using my computer and my phone, for they were both there with me. In my dream I awoke, and all was changed. Every window had been boarded up, as we sometimes do when a hurricane is approaching. (Clearly Isaias had  also found its way into my dreaming.) But instead of plywood, this was cement board—and unbreakable. And it was not just the windows that were boarded up, but all the doors.

We were completely shut in. There was no way out. There was no view out. Between one moment and the next, we had been cut off from the world outside.

What caused me the most distress was the back door. I couldn't stop looking at the cement board blocking what should have been a green, leafy view. Then somehow—the details are vague—a small view opened up so that I could see into the back yard. Gone were the trees, the plants, the insects, the frogs and the birds. In place of the porch, pool, and yard was a vast expanse of concrete with a single exercise trampoline off to one side, and a bulldozer off to the other.

Still half-asleep, I struggled to think. My computer and my phone were no more responsive than my thoughts. Finally, a little girl's voice asked, "Are we just going to watch the paint dry?"

Still fighting to come to full consciousness in my dream, I awoke to a like struggle to come out of what must have been a very deep sleep. But there I was on my swing, on our porch, with the blue of the pool and the green of the foliage in front of me. Dawn had come, and the birds were singing.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, August 2, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Edit
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No doubt the Swiss National Day activities are somewhat muted this year, but when you are a venerable 729 years old, it's certainly reason to celebrate.

In honor of my favorite country-in-law, here are some Sporcle quizzes for your education and amusement.

Name the Swiss cantons by location

Name the Swiss cantons by date (but you can enter them in any order)

Basic facts about Switzerland

Official Swiss languages

Swiss geography

Swiss borders

Enjoy!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 1, 2020 at 10:11 am | Edit
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