Perspective

My daughter called me last evening, frantic. She was driving to a dance competition in a city three hours away, but her car had stalled on the Interstate and would not start. We explored various options—were other dancers from her school liable to be along before I could get there?—but eventually it was obvious that I would have to meet her at her car and get her to the competition, and also I would have to arrange to get her car towed so it could be repaired.

It was dark by the time I found her and her car. We got her dress and supplies and overnight bag and pillow transferred into my car. I made sure that her car would be towable in the morning. Then we continued on our way. She needed to text several people about her situation, since she had first told them about the car trouble, so she was quietly working on her phone for a while. Then, in a soft voice, she asked me if I had heard about the shootings and bombings in Paris. I told her I had heard preliminary reports before leaving the house, and she proceeded to fill me in with the known details about the terrorist attacks and their victims.

After a while, she looked up and said to me, “I guess having the car break down on the interstate isn’t such a terrible thing, relatively speaking.”

Yes, I was proud of her for that moment of perspective. Canceling my evening plans and driving until nearly midnight suddenly did not seem such a terrible inconvenience either. I can read and watch television other nights. This night we could pray for the families of those murdered, for those in Paris who were injured, who were frightened, and who were in need of the Lord’s gentle care.

Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars (as well as earthquakes, famines, and other troubles) would fill history right up until the time of his Glorious Appearing to inaugurate the new creation and to complete the fullness of his promises, those promises already kept by his sacrifice and his resurrection. Accepting the knowledge that evil will happen is not surrendering to the evil. God’s people should continue to be horrified by every violent crime, by every act of war, and by every way that people hurt other people in this sinful world. Evil does not win so long as we continue to hate evil. While we continue to speak of a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness, we also call upon governments in this world to accomplish their God-given task, “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The government, acting as government, does not forgive sinners; it punishes the wicked and the evil and protects its citizens. This truth does not cancel the other truth that the cross of Christ is bigger than all evil combined, rescuing victims of sin and also sinners when they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

The Bible speaks of Tribulation, not as a count-down to the Last Days, but as a sign of the Last Days that has stood since Jesus died and rose from the dead. Enemies of the Church will attack and persecute Christians. Wicked people will pursue senseless violence for their own evil purposes. Wars and rumors of wars will continue. As citizens of this world, we fight evil with strength; as citizens of God’s Kingdom, we know that the victory over evil has already been won.

Some weeks it seems as though Murphy’s Gremlins have targeted me and my family with special maleficence. Car troubles and appliance troubles have plagued our lives and our family budget unremittingly for more than three straight years now. The awareness that “it could have been worse” seems hollow after frequent repetitions. Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall distinguished between miserable lives and horrible lives, suggesting that those who are merely miserable should be glad that their problems are not horrible. As a Christian, I can say more. Whether I suffer from the petty annoyances of Murphy’s Gremlins or whether I must face true evil in its ugliest form, I know that Christ has made me more than a conqueror by winning the battle and the war against evil. I know that nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Thank you, dear daughter, for that moment of perspective. J.

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Grammar Dalek: fifteen rules for better writing

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Grammar Dalek.

Most of the blogs I read are very literate, interesting as well as well-written. Even the best writers, though, sometimes make mistakes. When writers confuse its with it’s or their with there, I am ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Rather than punishing writers as they deserve, I am prepared to offer a second chance. Socrates and Confucius both believed that people break the rules because they don’t know the rules. Because people naturally want to be happy, they will do the right thing if they know what is right to do. As a public service, therefore, I am pleased to offer fifteen rules for better writing. I do not claim that this list is a new idea—many of these have been floating around for decades. I offer this list, though, in the hopes that these rules will be followed and I will not have to exterminate you.

  • Don’t use no double negatives.
  • Be careful to use apostrophe’s correctly.
  • Avoid repetitive redundancy.
  • Also avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read and make you sound foolish
  • Make sure that each verb and each pronoun agree with their subjects or antecedents.
  • Don’t use commas, which aren’t necessary.
  • Don’t abbrev.
  • A writer should try to maintain a consistent style, especially when composing a list.
  • Eschew obfuscation.
  • About sentence fragments. Don’t.
  • Join clauses good like a conjunctive should.
  • Check to see if you any words out.
  • After checking your grammar, check your math.
  • Last but not least, avoid dog-tired clichés like the plague.

I sincerely hope that all these rules will be obeyed, and the universe will become a more harmonious and coherent place. (By the way, these are examples of “fumblerules,” many more of which can be found when searching the internet.) J.

Soren Kierkegaard

He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.

Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.

Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.

At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.

Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.

At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.

Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.

For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.

The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.

Looking at an election

The success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the early presidential polls does not surprise me. In fact, the enthusiasm shown for these non-politicians matches what I felt in my brief foray into politics two years ago.

I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned when I heard a news item on the television related to the United States Congress. The thought entered my mind that someone like me would do as good a job as the current members of Congress are doing. The thought did not merely cross my mind; it remained embedded there for the rest of the day. I would certainly vote for someone like me rather than vote for a career politician, but how many people are like me? For the rest of the day I pondered that thought, and at the dinner table I asked my family how they felt about the possibility that I might run for Congress.

Since the family’s reaction was generally positive, I decided to ask a few other people who didn’t know me as well as my family does. I started at the barber shop. While waiting my turn for a haircut, I asked this question: If two candidates are running for Congress, and the biggest difference between them is that one is a career politician and the other has never held a political job, who would get your vote? Both the barber and the police officer getting a haircut said they would vote for the newcomer. I told them that I was thinking about running, and they both approved and promised their support. Over the following days, I had similar conversations at the grocery store, at the bank, and at church. The most common answer was that people would vote for the newcomer. A few people said they would consider only the issues and not care about experience. One man said he would vote for me once, but he would vote for someone else next time–he figured two years in Congress would be enough to corrupt anyone. No one said to me that they would vote for an experienced politician rather than a newcomer.

Thus prepared, I contacted several officials of one political party. Several of them ignored me, and one made it plain to me that he considered me a nobody, not someone to take seriously. Others were cordial, though, and I was invited to address a meeting of county officials of the party, along with any other candidates that were interested. By the time of that meeting, three candidates had announced that they were running for the party’s nomination to serve in Congress. Two of the three were at the same meeting. One of them was a member of the state legislature. Like me, she showed up early to meet people and stayed for the entire meeting. The other was a wealthy man who had been appointed to various political positions but had never run for office. He came late, made his statement (taking considerably more than the three minutes we each were allotted), and left soon afterward. In my three minutes, I explained that I was still thinking about running, introduced myself, and commented that my barber and my banker both thought I should run. I made it plain to them that my political positions match those of the party, but that I would run a unique campaign, one designed to draw independent voters as well as the party faithful. The reactions during and after the meeting were generally positive, with just one woman phoning to recommend that I not run, because she felt that the other work I was doing was more important than serving in Congress.

During the following weeks I attended several diverse events, some directly sponsored by the political party, and others more removed from the party. I met the party’s eventual nominee for the United States Senate at the opening of his campaign headquarters I even attended a tea party meeting. Sometimes I spoke to the entire group, but other times I merely mingled and met people. These weeks were my peek behind the curtain, my chance to see how politics are really run.

The next step was to see if I could raise money to support my campaign. I began contacting the wealthy people I know who are connected to the party. This was the stumble of my campaign, as potential donor after potential donor said, “Well, J., I’ve already promised my support to my dear friend,” who turned out to be the wealthy man who was running. I had hoped to run a campaign painting him as the ultimate insider, with me as the true outsider to politics. On the other hand, as the ultimate insider, he had captured the financial and personal support of the people who meant the difference between a viable campaign and a campaign that would be ignored.

By Christmas I knew that I was not running for Congress. Some people in the party urged me to seek a more local position, as they had an opening on the ballot they wanted to fill. I looked into the position, spoke to a few more people, and thought and prayed for a while. Then I had to admit I just wasn’t interested in that job. I thought I could win the campaign if I put my heart into it, but getting my heart into it was not easy. When some of the people supporting me began fighting with other people supporting me over a state-wide issue, I decided not to get involved in any campaign. Since I had strong feelings about the state-wide issue, I gave my support to those people in the legislature that felt as I did. This meant drawing further away from those who supported the opposite position. I heard one of a pair of good friends say that their friendship had ended as a result of this dispute. I knew that if I was heading into a career where friendships are torn apart by professional disagreements, I would not be happy there.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson may be outsiders to the political process, but they enter their campaign without the financial handicap that I faced. One year before the general election, I am not surprised they are doing well in the polls. Voters in this country are hungry for new leadership, for a new approach to politics and government. Whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson would be able to keep their promise to change the system, Americans are glad to hear of someone, anyone, who is willing to try to change things. If enough people like me chose to become involved during some election cycle, things could begin to change. As long as no one tries to make any changes, things will stay the same.

I tried once. I’m not ready yet to try again. But I do agree with the many who say that the system can be improved; it can be made workable again. Anything else I can do to bring that change closer, I will do. J.

First Friday Fiction Flashback: Rose Thorns

Finally, I was a high school senior: supreme over three quarters of the student body, ready to leave school in less than a year, almost an adult. The first day of school is always fun, but nothing matches the fun of the first day of senior year. Even preparing to study history and science and math seems exciting on the first day of the senior year.

History class looked especially bright that year—I knew nearly every student in the room, and the few I didn’t already know seemed like people I would enjoy knowing. No one, though, glowed with as much promise as the new girl sitting in one of the front-row desks.

She caught my eye the instant I walked through the doorway. I was convinced at first that she must have come from California, or had at least spent the summer there. She fit my Midwestern stereotype of a California girl: slender and graceful, with long straight blond hair, and with a bright cheerful smile. She dazzled each of us entering the room with her dazzling smile, and she charmed us all with her gentle, friendly brown eyes just above her small, pert nose.

The California stereotype vanished during attendance when she answered to the name of Shannon Knight. Her name and her voice were unmistakably southern, and rural southern at that. I wondered what had brought this belle to our northern village.

I knew right away that Shannon was going to be very popular. Her attitude towards her fellow students showed warmth and interest without a hint of vanity or conceit. People like her are never short of friends, so I figured that I had no reason to get to know her. I know this sounds funny, but I prefer friends who are not popular. They can spend more time being my friend because they aren’t busy trying to be the whole world’s friend.

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that Shannon was not surrounded by admirers as I had expected. Perhaps she escaped notice from the crowd because she was quiet. Maybe it’s just that we had already made our friends during the first three years of high school and no one was ready to add her to their group. It struck me that Shannon needed a friend, and I also needed a friend. I was sure that I could get along with a girl who smiled as much as she did.

I should explain that all through high school I was lacking what most high school boys consider a necessity: I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had several friends who were girls, but I had no one to take to movies or to offer gifts or to write long letters. I hadn’t really tried hard to find a girlfriend, because I knew that I hadn’t yet met the “right girl.” At first, I wasn’t thinking of asking Shannon to be my girlfriend. She seemed lonely, and I realized that I felt lonely too.

One day after history class I walked by her side down the hall. I don’t remember how I started the conversation, but I probably said something about the class. As I had hoped, Shannon was easily engaged in conversation. Within days we were seeking each other out in the halls, walking and talking together between classes and after school. By the end of the month we had traded phone numbers, and we began having long conversations after supper as well as in the school halls.

In these conversations, I learned that Shannon had lived in the small town of Acorn, Virginia until that summer. She was exactly one month older than me. She liked people, but she didn’t like crowds. Her favorite settings were forests and mountains. She abhorred cities. She had no great preference in contemporary music, aside from the fact that she hated both disco and hard rock. Her favorite music was written by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. She liked to read, and she hoped someday to be an author.

“I just read a really neat book,” she told me one day. “It was about a newspaper reporter who falls in love in love with a Russian actress and spends years trying to meet her.”

“What’s the name of the book?” I asked her.

“I don’t remember,” she replied.

“Well, who wrote it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” she repeated. “Why worry about the details? The story is what matters, not the title and name on the cover.”

Her entire philosophy seemed to consist of ignoring labels and other unimportant details. Once when I asked her about her religion, she simply answered, “Christian.”

“But what kind of Christian?” I persisted. “Are you Baptist or Lutheran or Catholic or what?”

“Just a Christian,” she shrugged. “That’s enough.”

I was surprised later to learn that she was a devout Catholic. “I didn’t tell you,” she added, “because it’s not important. Christians shouldn’t argue and fight over their differences. There are enough non-Christians in the world who need our attention. As long as we believe in Jesus as our Savior, why fight about the rest?”

Another time I commented, “You know what amazes me? It’s strange that the two of us became such good friends in such a short time.”

“I don’t believe in being half a friend,” she responded. “People say, ‘Let’s just be friends,’ when what they really mean is that they don’t want to be friends at all. There’s no such thing as ‘just friends.’ All friends are good friends.”

On a different day, either before or after that conversation, Shannon said, “I don’t know why so many people who call themselves ‘friends’ feel a need to prove themselves. Friends don’t need proof; they just need to be loved. I don’t mean love like in the movies, but just plain, simple love. You can’t call yourself a friend without love.”

The first time Shannon visited my house was a warm Saturday afternoon at the start of November. We had not yet had a killing frost, and a lot of the flowers in my mother’s garden were still blooming. Shannon had told me that she liked flowers, so I made sure to show her the late blooms. As we strolled around among the plants, Shannon began whistling a light, simple tune. “That’s pretty,” I told her.

“It has words,” she mentioned, and without waiting for me to ask, she sang them to me. “The prettiest flower fades in an hour, dries up, and is blown away. The roses last longer, their perfume is stronger, but thorns take their beauty away.”

“It’s a nice tune,” I remarked, “but it loses something with those words.”

“The words are the thorns on that rose,” she explained. “Every beautiful thing has its own kind of thorns. Personally, I don’t like roses. Roses are hypocrites—they draw you in by their beauty and then stab you when you touch them. You can’t hurt yourself picking a daisy. Besides, there’s more to a plant than its flower.”

Shannon rarely observed the negative side of anything in life, so her attitude about roses surprised me. I also noticed that she never said “Good-bye.” When I mentioned that fact to her she said, “I prefer to end conversations with ‘Have a nice day,’ or ‘See you tomorrow.’ ‘Good-bye’ sounds so final. It sounds as if you expect never to see that person again.”

Nothing bothered her more than a negative person. “Why can’t they see the light?” she wondered. “Every person has at least one good point, and other people should spend their time looking for that good point instead of focusing on the bad. In any case, they ought to keep their observations to themselves. It’s not my business what one person thinks about another person.” Shannon also disliked worriers. “There are so many good things to consider in the world. It’s no use focusing on the bad things that could happen. Worrying improves nothing. Action can solve problems and make the world better, but people who worry never accomplish anything. Worrying is a waste of time and energy.”

Shannon almost never was angry, but when she did lose her temper, her outbursts were generally constructive. One day in January, I came to school discouraged because of clouds, the snow, and the cold. “Nobody should have to get out of bed on a day like today,” I grumbled.

Shannon looked directly at me, and it felt as if sparks were flying from her eyes. “When you can change the weather, go ahead and do it,” she told me. “Until then, keep quiet about it.”

“I have the right to say how I feel,” I insisted.

“Not around me you don’t,” she said firmly, and that was the last word allowed on that subject.

Spring finally came, and Shannon’s family had relatives visiting. That Saturday afternoon, Shannon called me and surprised me with her request. “We’re putting together a baseball game this afternoon, but we’re short one player. Would you like to join us?”

“You play baseball?” I asked her.

“I play first base,” she answered.

“Are you any good?” I dared to ask.

“Last year I hit about .300 in summer league,” she said. “Are you coming or not?”

“Leave second base open for me,” I offered.

The game was good-natured and I enjoyed it, even though our team lost. After the game, Shannon’s father asked me to stay for dinner, and I accepted. We ate a picnic supper of grilled hamburgers with chips and salads and lemonade. When we were done eating, Mr. Knight started a bonfire. Shannon went into the house and came back with a guitar. She played the guitar and led us in singing some songs we all knew. She also sang some songs I had never heard before. Sunday night, as we spoke on the phone, I mentioned my surprise, learning in one day both that she played baseball and that she played the guitar. “I never knew either of those things about you,” I commented. “I thought I knew you better than that.”

“You were wrong,” she teased me. “Nobody knows everything about me. No one ever will know anything about me. I expect to die a mystery to the world.”

The next weekend I offered to return the favor by taking Shannon to a movie. “I’d invite your whole family to come, but I can’t afford to pay for all their tickets.”

“That’s fine,” she assured me. “They’ll be happy enough just to be rid of me for the evening.”

The movie was good, but somehow sitting next to Shannon in the dark seemed awkward. Before and after the movie, everything we said to each other felt stilted and unnatural. I don’t know why taking her to a movie led to such discomfort, but everything about that night seemed wrong. Shannon obviously felt the same way. When I dropped her off at her house, she looked at me and said, “That was an awful evening!” Oddly, I felt better after she said that to me. Fortunately, she never mentioned our movie night again.

Straight, blunt honesty had always been one of Shannon’s traits. I’m unsure whether to call it a virtue or a fault. We talked about what constitutes a virtue once, and it was one of the few times we disagreed. I insisted that a person’s feelings were more important than always telling the truth. “Lies never helped anyone,” Shannon countered.

“In that case, maybe the best thing to do is change the subject, or say nothing at all,” I offered.

“A half-truth is worse than no truth at all,” she insisted, “and saying nothing or changing the subject is only half a truth. Honestly is always the best policy, and that’s a fact.” Although she didn’t convince me to change my mind, our difference of opinion did not threaten our friendship.

Late in April, I offered to take her to a restaurant. “I don’t know,” she demurred. “Perhaps we should do something outdoors, something where we can be natural with each other.” We promised each other that over the summer we would find outings that suited both of us, activities that would not make us feel stilted and awkward. “You’re not going to forget this promise?” she asked me.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “No matter what happens, I will never forget you.”

The school year was winding down; graduation was getting closer every day. Our friendship remained stable, although we were slightly competitive when it came to grades. Shannon was earning an A in English, largely because of her skill at creative writing. Although she sought a life that was simple, her mind was not simple. She was very capable of creating and polishing a complicated and interesting story. She also excelled at math, but with less enthusiasm. “I don’t know how I get As in math; I don’t even try hard,” she commented. Shannon was also passing me by in history, another one of her hobbies along with writing. In chemistry and in Physical Education, it looked as though I might have the edge over her, grade-wise.

On the sixteenth of May, I could tell that something was bothering her. She had just come out of math class, but I couldn’t tell if she was thinking about math or about something else. Shannon was very quiet as we walked from her locker down the hall, out the door, and toward the students’ parking lot. Suddenly, on the sidewalk, she turned to me and said, “Some days I get so mad at myself that I can’t even see straight.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then shook her head. “Not right now,” she said. “Would you like a ride home?”

“Not today,” I replied. “The walk and the fresh air will be good for me.”

“OK,” she said. “Enjoy your walk. Goodbye.”

“Bye,” I said, and I set out for home.

The seventeenth of May was a Saturday, and I didn’t expect to hear from Shannon until evening. I thought about her all morning, wishing I was bold enough to invite myself over to her house, but my parents frowned upon such bad manners. Late that afternoon the telephone rang, and of course my mother shared the news with me right away.

A few days later I was walking through my mother’s garden, and I saw that the buds on her roses were swelling, getting ready to burst into bloom. My eye traced down the stem to the thorns half-hidden among the leaves. Tears came to my eyes and I knelt in the dirt, crying, as I remembered the florist’s roses Shannon had held in her hands as she lay in the coffin.

The sense of scents

Dogs and cats rely on the sense of smell far more than people do. In fact, people often overlook the importance of scents, because we pay far more attention to what we see and hear and touch. Being blind or deaf is a serious problem, but not being able to smell seems to make very little difference to a person.

Our awareness of scents is often more subliminal than direct. When I was in college, the psychology professor described how she had struggled with depression in her college days. While she was enduring several weeks of depression, she had classes in a building with fragrant flowers blooming outside. Even years later, she reported, smelling that kind of flower made her feel a twinge of depression due to the olfactory reminder of her college darkness.

On a recent Saturday a member of my family was preparing food right after breakfast to cook in a slow cooker, and my thoughts drifted to the Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood. Soon I established the connection—my mother made a stuffing with onion and celery that she chopped on Thanksgiving morning, and I believe that was the only morning of the entire year that she chopped those vegetables. She often cooked with them, but usually she only chopped in the afternoon. Smelling chopped onions in the morning immediately evoked my memories of Thanksgiving mornings from years ago.

The mind can work the opposite direction as well. I was driving to work a couple of mornings ago, listening to the classical music station, and a piano piece started to play. Instantly I thought I smelled faintly the aftershave lotion that my uncle used to wear. My uncle taught me how to play the piano when I was a child. I had not remembered the scent of that aftershave lotion for years, but a piano piece on the radio brought it to mind.

Early this year, I took my family to one of those towns where people have restored the old buildings to make the town look like it was more than a hundred years ago. The restaurant where we ended up having lunch was in one of those restored buildings, and it had a wood-burning fireplace. The entire south end of the town was permeated with the odor of the burning logs. Days later, when I was looking at pictures of the same buildings, I smelled the wood smoke again, and that happened several times over the following days whenever I had reason to glance at those photographs.

I know that I am highly sensitive to scents as well as to sounds. I haven’t had trouble with migraine headaches lately, but when I did struggle with migraines, I usually knew one was coming because I became even more sensitive to odors. What a woman considers an appropriate amount of perfume can send me into a coughing fit that makes me have to leave the room. If one person has spent time with another person who smokes cigarettes, I can smell the smoke in that person’s clothing even if the other person didn’t smoke in the company of the first person. I am not fond of the odors of plastics and other chemicals—I’ve never understood the attraction for some people of a “new car smell.” I would far rather breathe the air of a farmyard or a zoo, odors that other people find offensive but I find mildly comforting.

The sense of smell is more a part of our lives than most people realize. Much of the taste of food and beverages comes from the odor, which is why food tastes different to a person whose nose is congested. Odors can be a warning of danger, such as smelling fire in a house or smelling gasoline in a car. Odors we do not consciously notice can still influence us, as is the case with pheromones, which can attract one person to another person although neither person knows why. When people shop for a house, they can be influenced positively or negatively by scents; some homeowners cook a batch of chocolate chip cookies when they know that a prospective buyer will be visiting.

Near where I work is a vegetarian restaurant. Some days when I walk by, they are cooking onions, caramelizing them for soups or sandwiches. I cannot smell onions being cooked in that way without thinking of pork chops the way my mother used to prepare them.

What scents carry the strongest memories in your life? J.

My own private Beatlefest

As an introvert, I have never wanted to attend the big fan festivals for those entertainment giants I like the most: the Beatles, the Chicago Cubs, and Doctor Who. I am content to enjoy this entertainment on my own, follow them on television or the internet, and even use the internet to share enthusiasm with other fans. Aside from attending an occasional game at Wrigley Field, I have no inclination of being physically surrounded by fans who share my interests.

Therefore, I decided this fall to hold my own private Beatlefest. To celebrate the Beatles, I am doing three things, or possibly four. I am reading the 350-page coffee table book Beatles Anthology. I am watching the eight-part video series that goes with that book. (Each installment is about seventy-five minutes.) I am setting my CD alarm to wake me up each morning with a different Beatles song. I may possibly find time to listen to entire albums from start to finish.

The only problem with my own private Beatlefest is that I am not able to keep the different media in sync. I am already half-way through the book, which I started a day or two after I finished reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m all the way up to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I’ve been able to see three installments of the video series, which has me up to the tour between the filming of “Hard Days Night” and “Help!” My wake-up music is still coming from the soundtrack of “Hard Days Night.” Meanwhile, the only album I’ve had time to hear from start to finish is “Please Please Me,” (which was released in the United States, missing a couple of songs, as “The Early Beatles”).

Actually, a second difficulty was choosing thirty-five favorite songs for my alarm out of the many Beatles songs which I like. I had to try my best to stick to three songs an album, even though there are some albums which have many more than three good songs. I didn’t really want the Beatlefest to last much past the eighth of December, though, so I am limited in the number of songs I can choose.

For many years, November has been, for me, a month to remember the Beatles. When I was first learning about their music and beginning to buy their albums, a documentary about the Beatles was shown on TV, followed immediately by the movie “Hard Days Night.” This happened just before Thanksgiving, and I spent the entire long weekend listening to the Beatle albums I had already bought. Now, more Novembers than not, the Beatles come to mind. Sometimes my festival runs from November 29 to December 8 to remember the deaths of George Harrison and John Lennon, respectively. This year I started earlier, mostly because I wanted plenty of time to read the big book.

The Beatles managed to combine excellent music with entertaining personalities. I cannot agree with every decision they made for their personal lives, but I have learned to enjoy their music, their movies, and the documentaries about them without being distracted by their drug use, their casual attitude towards sex and towards marriage, and their dabbling in a form of the Hindu religion. John Lennon’s famous remark that the Beatles were “bigger than Christ” was meant (according to John), not as a boast or a put-down of Christ, but as a complaint that the Church was not doing enough to promote Christ and his teachings. John Lennon thought Christianity was going to disappear from the world; in that, he was misinformed. While Christ will remain God’s Son and the world’s Lord and Savior, the Beatles will remain an entertaining foursome from Liverpool, England, who have helped to shape the musical taste of several generations of music lovers.

In the past, I’ve been known to sink so deeply into a private Beatlefest that I actually pick up a Liverpudlian accent. I doubt that is going to happen this year. As long as I enjoy the music, though, the time spent on my own private Beatlefest will be worth the experience. J.