I love songs the way I love books. Stories, themes and symbolism can all be as powerfully communicated through 3 minutes of music as they can in a full-length novel. Lyrics do the telling, which is why the words are just as important to me as the sound of a song. While re-listening to some of my favorites from this year, I tried encapsulating what each one was about in a single word, and found that 3 ideas kept appearing. The first: epiphany. 


Epiphany is a sudden widening of your world. "Ghost of a King" by The Gray Havens widens into a new world altogether. It's a meeting that whirls into a supernatural journey and ends in a healing shock of water. The man in the song knows he's broken, but learns that the broken part of him belongs to the supernatural world he never knew existed. He discovers in immediate succession the impossible hopelessness of his state...

          you are a lonely soul 

          with a heart of stone that rakes against your thirsty bones

...and the impossible hope of newness.

          Where no chariot can take you,
          where the river meets the sand,
          there is water there that can quench your thirsty bones
          and make you well.


I recognize all the moments I've felt most alive in Beta Radio's "All at Once I Saw It All." It begins with homesickness for the unknown - a grasping at infinity. You reach and reach until the moment you glance back at time-bound reality. Then in the light of forever, life strikes you in an epiphany. 

          How rare and beautiful
          that we were ever even born.

It's as if the whole of life can briefly be seen "to scale," but of course that also includes a fearful awareness of its end. 

          The ghost parade a shroud,
          my body rearranged.

And you're left reaching for eternity only fiercer than before. 


I think Taylor Leonhardt expresses the bewilderment and joy of epiphany in her song "Everything" (and "Surprising Me" from the same album). I love the discovery of something so significant that it touches every part of living. You get to run from one thing to the next, watching it change in front of you, soaking in the novelty of re-orientation. 

          You flipped the whole thing around
          dropped the sky to the ground
          you are here with us now.

The end of this song brings me to the second overarching idea in my favorite songs this year: surety. To be continued in Part 2...

If my 5th-grade self could have peeked into a crystal ball, she would probably have viewed my math education career as unforgivably traitorous. The battle lines between Sylvia (age 10) and Dad (her math teacher) were firmly established. War was declared, battles fiercely fought, and the eventual peace treaties which were necessary for us to put in writing still exist in a storage box. I was firmly convinced I was "not a math person." Dad's natural abilities in math, plus the fact that he was my parent AND math teacher, put us at what seemed like hopeless enmity. I was outraged that he wouldn't just "tell me how to do it," but that he rather attempted to explain abstract mathematical concepts (which involved "extra" thinking and work) before slowly circling around the shortcut or algorithm (which was all I cared about). I resisted learning the concepts because they were difficult, resulting in misuse of the easy algorithms because I didn't understand what they meant or how to apply them sensibly. 

On the other hand, I knew I was good at reading. It came so much more easily and was actually enjoyable. Entire chapter book series were eaten up in a week or two, and I remember the day the children's librarian couldn't find a single book on World War II from the juvenile section that I hadn't read. My piano teacher was indignant when this 10-year-old brought Jane Eyre to read while sitting on the couch through my sister's lesson. She refused to believe I was actually comprehending it, and she was partly right. I read books that were too difficult for me, picking out chunks of understanding, but knowing a lot was going over my head. Those books went in the library bag anyway because I had the confidence that if I kept reading them, I would eventually get it. 

It took until junior year of high school for the realization to break that practicing math eventually led to mastery too!

In college, I concentrated in language arts and math education with a mission to prove that "not a math person" and "not a reading person" are myths. Just like piano skills are first learned by practice and then enjoyed, so math and reading skills are practiced, mastered and then enjoyed. Sometimes natural skills enable enjoyment in the beginning, and that often motivates further practice. But so many people operate under the groundless assumption that just because they don't naturally enjoy something, that means they never can. 

That might sound painfully obvious, but it goes against a deeply established narrative in our culture. I encounter it constantly in my line of work and sometimes with my students. That's right, the kids I teach on a day-to-day basis are not the ones primarily posing this. Their parents, in email correspondence, conferences, phone calls and even friendly chatter, echo each other with remarkably similar comments: "I can't help them with their math homework," "I was never good at math," "I have to send them to ______ for those questions," "I'm not a math person." 

Faculty lounge lunches carry similar refrains, ranging from "I could never teach math" to "I can't cook" or "I'm not an exercise person." My co-workers were amazed when I told them the story of my dad's long mission to overcome his distaste for tomatoes - now one of his favorite foods. We all know people are born with likes and abilities, but it was absolutely foreign to them that someone could choose additional ones. I remember feeling the same way in college when a professor shared the story of his mom's transformation from a stiff, awkward person to a "great hugger" simply because she decided to practice physical warmth with others. At that point, I had learned my lesson about math, but never transferred the lesson to other parts of my seemingly static personality. 

Over time, I've slowly tried to adjust the wording around my deficits. Instead of "I don't have an artistic bone in my body," it's "I've never spent much time drawing or sketching." Rather than "I kill every plant I've ever owned," it's "I want to learn how to grow things." I was delighted to visit my friend recently and hear the story of her "plant hospital." Even though she never had what she considered a green thumb, she decided to pay closer attention to her succulents each day to find out what made them thrive. After moving the pots around and trying different amounts of watering, the greenery on her windowsill looked lovely and healthy, and she had the wonderful feeling of having learned something new. 

Now I have some projects of improvement in my life. Of course the goal is not to become a master in all the areas of deficit. For some things, changing my attitude and language is enough. I realized for the first time this year that hating winter and complaining about being cold has been a hugely unnecessary energy drain my whole life. Why not train my brain and body to withstand the cold? Why not intentionally look for and appreciate the strikingly beautiful elements of winter? For some deficits, I'm simply working to become more proficient. And a few areas - those that I believe will enrich my life and those around me most - will be long-term efforts to master. But even if I never reach those goals, I know life will be enriched by reaching for them, knowing that they're not "not" possible. 

Skills to improve: 
gardening
shopping 
cooking
decorating
hosting guests
listening
physical affection
rising early
hair care
art
crafting
event planning
house maintenance 
giving gifts
correspondence
musical accompaniment 

There has been a steady stream of sexual molestation accounts in the news reports for as long as I can remember. Commentary of coworkers and acquaintances follows each one - the main theme being "these monsters aren't fit to live." They use language to position the offenders as far away from the human race as possible, often calling for capital punishment. And this is all just.

But for some reason, over the past year the news reports and subsequent responses haven't just passed through my mind as ever-present tragedies. They've stuck and started to aggregate so that each new repercussion strikes a gong with all the horrors of the previous ones echoing together. In January, I watched Rachael Denhollander's victim impact statement which had a lot of circulation on social media. It was her contrasting note of justice joined with mercy that made me realize the weight of horrors is not just made up of the abuses, but of our culture's response. It is a justice completely stripped of mercy.

When I see an abuser, I do see someone who should receive, in Rachael Denhollander's words, "the greatest measure of justice available," but I also see a suffering human being. Only the most crushing emptiness drives a person to seek such violent stimulation. In no way does this excuse his sins or unpayable debts, but it's a reality the culture omits.

Visualize the whole life of the abuser. No one develops the capacity for such evil acts in a sudden moment. It's a process that begins with sins not so far removed from ours. He seeks compulsively to fill his emptiness with entertainment, pornography, masturbation. These gradually sink the poisoned teeth of addiction deeper and deeper. Older forms of escape no longer give satisfaction. New forms are needed to arouse and the addiction is a sickness that demands to be fed. Level by level, he descends by increments of violence too small to deter him. He is disgusted by himself, but addiction desensitizes the disgust enough to keep being fed.

In his descent, I see the pattern of my own sins. He's not some monster of a different class of creature. I was born with the same emptiness, the same compulsion to mask it with anything in my reach. I've fallen level by level into disgusting sins, and am only removed from the abuser by degrees. As Pope Francis says in The Name of God is Mercy, "Their fall could have been mine."

I know my weakness is such that I could become an abuser. Only because people around me have allowed the grace of God to work through them have I been protected and restrained. My emptiness was softened by the love I received, not by me. My conscience was well-formed, not by me. My circumstances were wisely hedged, not by me. Even with all these gifts and more, I fall repeatedly. It does no good to stand on this higher ground and claim superiority. The ground of grace is what holds me higher, not myself.

So with Rachael Denhollander, I look on these miserable, utterly evil child molesters with pity, not as "other," but as I might be. And I'm not afraid to proclaim that God's mercy reaches even so low.

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