Summer’s Heartbeat

regard by ben seidelman on flickrOn some summer nights, it seems the world is brighter, more visible in a quiet way, as if the dusk was created for your pleasure. On some summer nights, it seems you can see through the false dome of sky to what lies beyond, air glimmering just for you.

There’s a vertiginous sense that the heavens are just about to fall, that strange unproven sense of doom we mistake for true prescience. It’s a symptom of a heart attack too—sense of impending doom—caused by a bit of agitated electricity hitchhiking from damaged unhearing tissue to a nerve that will translate its message in the language of emotion and spurred survival.

Or is doom the electrical wave of a migraine washing the shores before finding its well-traveled path, the ram’s horn arc from eye to nape, hot flicker at the jawbone and eye?

A friend and I once stood on a darkened street in summer, commiserating about how we’d find a way to bleed ourselves after menopause, apply leeches, submit to the blood donation center’s pipe-like needles. We’d just need to see it, feel it go, leaving ourselves diminished and cleansed, we both said. [Read more…]

Practicing Presence, Part 1

The following two-part post was originally delivered as the 2017 commencement address for Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon.

Thank you for the high honor of inviting me to speak on this special occasion. My heartfelt congratulations to you graduating seniors for having reached this important milestone in your lives. Given the deep and demanding curriculum you’ve just completed, that is quite an achievement and I hope you feel justifiable pride in having reached this point. I know that your parents, family, and teachers feel that pride.

This is a special moment for me for a number of reasons, including one that you could have no way of knowing about. At a conference nearly forty years ago, when I was but a green behind the ears undergraduate student, I met a gifted, imaginative man named Kerry Koller, who shared with me his plan for founding Trinity School, which would be based on a wide-ranging liberal arts curriculum that integrated faith and learning according to classical educational principles going back to the medieval and Renaissance eras.

Now here I am, speaking to a graduating class from an institution affiliated with a whole network of Trinity schools.

Thinking back to that meeting with Kerry the immortal words of Darth Vader come to mind: “I’ve been waiting for you, Kerry-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

Seriously, though, I still consider myself the Padawan to Master Kerry and I salute him across these four decades with respect and affection for the movement he began and continues to inspire. [Read more…]

Courting Babel

This month I thought it would be a good idea to take four hours of Arabic every week and an intensive JavaScript course all while working full-time.

I was nervous about the Arabic, scared that I wouldn’t remember how to read or speak politely after three years away from formal lessons, but strangely, it came right back. Maybe it was the pressure—a nervous stomach that forces letters into words and meanings.

I left the first class feeling happy, my brain overjoyed to have been given what it craves: a problem to solve.

“You’re so strong,” my sister said to me a few weeks ago.

But what I’ve been saying to myself several times a day is: “Natalie, you can’t be scared of everything, all the time.”

Maybe it’s the sudden summer heat, a combustibility that seems to feed a frantic impotence that can turn on a dime into panic, a chain of worry that feeds itself inexhaustibly. Until I’m too exhausted to feel it any longer: a welcome reprieve. [Read more…]

Do Atheists Dream of Pearly Gates?

even when I don’t believe
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief
a patch of wild grace

—Anna Kamieńska

If humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, should we feel sad about that? Should we feel bereft, or disappointed?

That’s how David Kestenbaum describes his feelings on a recent This American Life.

“This would mean,” he tells Ira Glass, “there’s nobody out there that knows more than we do…. Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.”

Most people Kestenbaum speaks with during don’t understand him, but it seems obvious to me. He has invested the idea of aliens with transcendent value. The “world” for him is defined by the limits of human knowledge, and he seems to doubt that we can save ourselves. His hope, then, is that some other intelligence could show us the way.

Therefore, the thought that there may not be any such intelligence troubles him. It struck me as a version of atheist doubt. I mean, they must doubt, sometimes, right?

Doubt has been a part of my spiritual vocabulary for a long time, though not in the way most Christian magazine headlines mean it. [Read more…]