Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Birthday to a Dear Friend

For her birthday, Shanah Van asked that we give somebody else a gift lin lieu of giving one to her. This post is probably going to be late, because it’s taken me a while to figure out what to say, and also because I’m writing this from a place that doesn’t have internet access.

You can tell this is a serious post because I’m going to start it off with some disclaimers. Let me start by breaking the rules a bit and saying that I love Shanah Van. This has been true for some time but “I love you” was one of those things that was locked away in the statue room for the right person. Now it’s been given to the right person, so I can say “I love you” to Shanah and not feel bad (I suppose most of you know this, but for anybody who doesn’t, let me note for the record that I dislike qualifying “I love you” with phrases like “as a friend” or “in Christ.” Of course I don’t love Shanah the same way I love my sister, or my mother, or Thayet, and I harbor no romantic inclinations towards her. But the fact remains that I love her, and that’s that).

Second, let me say that this post is bending the rules of this blog just a bit. My intention is not to honor, and not to offend. I don’t think anything I’m going to be saying is news, so anybody who knows who I’m talking about ought to also know already what I say here. But if anybody finds anything here offensive or uncomfortable, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to redact accordingly.

That said, on to the post.

I couldn’t think of one person to give a gift to, so instead I’m going to do a partial tour through my statue room, now that it’s closed. There are plenty of statues I’m going to skip, and of course the whole concept means I’m not going to be hitting any of the guys (and I’m still missing a blogname for Blue Rose’s boy). What can I say? Can’t hit everybody in one post.

In my head there is a long hall, all in white, with bright lighting that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. At the end of this hall there is a painting framed in rich brown wood, which is the only color in the entire scene. We’ll return to the painting later. At the end of the hall you can turn left or right. I don’t know what lies to the left. To the right, at the very end of the hall on your right, is the door to the statue room.

This hall and the door itself are all plain featureless white, all brightly reflecting the same sourceless white light. Inside are statues of all the girls I’ve ever had crushes on (there is only one girl I can say I have ever loved, in the romantic sense, and she isn’t here). They stand on a vast crowded floor on low circular podiums, carved in white stone smoother than the creamiest Parian marble. All is the same pristine, unbroken white except for Nari’s statue, with its steel thunderbolt—pristine, but not cold. There is a warmth in the stone of the statues, a bittersweet fondness as of old friends. I have often wished that I could carry a document like this in my wallet, so that if I were in a serious accident somebody could try to find these women and tell them what a difference they made, that Natalie remembered them. But of course such a document would be far too large to carry in a wallet.

In revisiting this place it is not my intention to revisit old feelings for the sake of old feelings. But I would like to single out a few because they taught me something significant that has helped to bring me here.

There is Nala, who can be named at last after Twilight and Kathelia’s wedding. Her statue is a lioness with an imperious tilt to her head, gaze focused on something distant, caught in the motion of crouching into unseen grass. Nala was the first girl ever to show interest in me as a boy, and also the first girl I had a major crush on that I learned to be friends with. My first crush ever was Raven, but in all the ways that matter it began with Nala. She was the one who first introduced me to that complicated dance through the woods of pursuit and pursue. It would never have worked out, but for anybody who thinks Thayet and I are a surprising match—oh, you should have been there in middle school with me and Twilight and Nala, in the days of the Empire and Gen. Hayes.

There is Thea, whose statue is a long and sinuous dragoness backwinging as she sets down on a lake unseen, head tossed upward with the joy of the grass and the sun and the water. Nala was my friend. She was wild and romantic and fiery, like a wood elf come to life. We would wrestle and play and fight and dream together. But Thea—Thea was kind to me. My old friend. The girl I used to go on dates with that left me with a grin I just couldn’t shut off, because she liked me for me. Thea taught me that I really was as good as anybody. She believed in me.

There is Princess, whose statue is the dragoness Sasha—I don’t know how else to describe it. In early high school my Dragon Girls inspired me to write a pair of beauty pieces that tried to explain our relationships. Thea’s was titled Simply Wonderful. Princess’ was simply I Know a Girl. Princess taught me for the first time what it was like to be friends with and attracted to a girl who was my intellectual equal. Someone who didn’t think I was smart, or weird, or verbose—just Natalie. Wonderfully Natalie, enjoyably Natalie—but just Natalie. She taught me how wonderful that is, and how necessary, and how possible. When we went out we’d just talk, enjoying the electricity that crackled between us. People would always mistake us for boyfriend and girlfriend, and she was (is, I suppose) a beautiful girl—but I think I was always just Natalie to her, and to me she was just Princess.

There is the Hawaiian, whose statue is just her, standing behind her keyboard, wearing a smile being lifted on unheard chords to God. The Hawaiian was the first Christian girl I had a real crush on. She taught me how necessary, how indispensable it is to fall in love with a girl who loves Jesus. And she taught me that you have to wait for God’s timing even when you can’t see any external obstacles.

There is Blue Rose, about whom I could say so much, but I imagine that too much would embarrass her. Her statue is just a long-stemmed rose, standing upright, suspended by unseen forces above its podium. She is the lady knight at my round table, who has always looked out for me, always called me back, always called me on by her example to be like Jesus. I always felt that we went through Stanford like two figures out of a Tyrtaios song, neither running ahead nor lagging behind, encouraging each other with our words. She taught me … well, lots of things. She taught me that the true things do not necessarily become untrue just because they operate differently in new life circumstances. She taught me the importance of being myself even as myself changes and grows. She taught me new ways to be brave and obey God.

There is Shanah Van, whose statue is herself in an enormous gown (green, though the stone of course is white) with layers of petticoats. She is caught in the midst of a spin, and though her face is blankly serious there is joy lurking beneath the surface. Shanah was my Sweatshirt Girl, who with Blue Rose kept me going through those first two years in Testimony and thereby opened up so much of what God had for me, and who bears a large portion of responsibility for the fact that I dance (and therefore, in a way, for my meeting Thayet). I think Shanah was the first girl at Stanford to flirt with me—she taught me how attraction can nourish friendship, if the friendship comes first.

The last statue I want to take you past is that of Esther Selene, whose statue is the a mare’s head thrown back and whinnying, against a backdrop of a crescent moon whose arms enclose three stars. It was Esther Selene who taught me a large portion of what I know about dating and romance (and who first taught me how to apply what I know), who taught me the joy of doing it right, and who put the last nail in the coffin of the idea that at heart I’m really just a nerd, and nobody outside of my family will ever love me.

And that brings us to me, as we weave our way through all the other statues whose subjects I don’t have time to honor now, and I direct your attention away from the statue of the country girl in the checkered dress with the basket on her arm. It would bend the rules too much to talk about who I am, but I suppose you know—and to the extent that I am a worthy partner for a woman, a large part of the credit goes to the women above.

Now it is time to close the door to the statue room, and return to the painting we passed by at the start. The painting is of a woman, with tumbled curls of hair so brown it is nearly black and creamy pink skin, with a full and mobile and very red mouth. The wood of the frame is a rich brown, and to the left of the painting as I show it to you there is a heater shield trimmed in silver and blue. To the right is a hoplite aspis, also in silver and blue.

This is Thayet, after the half-K’miri queen of Jonathan IV (did everybody catch the details there? Don’t tell me you haven’t read the books), whose subjects call her the Peerless—but I call this woman my sister, fellow priestess, lady knight, and my future queen. I call her, after the phrase of Solomon, the one whom my soul loves.

The woman in this painting loves Jesus. She is morally brave, and willing to do what he tells her to. She is wild and romantic and fiery, but I would like to call your attention to the self-evident fact that her painting is not of a kite. It is of Thayet as Thayet I, founder of the Queen’s Riders (and let us recall as well the character of the Queen’s Ladies). Wild and romantic and fiery, yes, but flighty—no. Her emotions run high, but as a person, she is steadfast. She is practical, in her way, which is usually not my way—that is to say, we are both young, and we have different (but I think complimentary) areas of expertise when it comes to living life well both practically and morally.

There is a surprising sadness in the face of the woman in this painting. She has been through a lot—which is not especially impressive, of course, nor particularly admirable. Lots of people have been through a lot and come through it the worse for wear; suffering is an opportunity to build character but doesn’t produce it. Here is what I do find admirable: to bear suffering and retain one’s happiness, one’s sense of delight. Of course, lots of people can stay happy in the face of crushing disappointment; it’s one of many defense mechanisms the psyche can choose from. So here is something more admirable still: to bear suffering and joy simultaneously, with joy the deeper and higher of the two. Happiness can be a defense mechanism. Contentment and wonder can be defense mechanisms. Joy comes from the Lord, and my love is a joyful woman.

She’s always been there for me. Of course, there are lots of reasons to always stick by a person, not all of them good. But Thayet stuck around because she believed in me, believed both in what I’m trying to be and that I can do it, and she believed those things for the right reasons. Anybody can believe in a dream and the ability to accomplish it as wishful thinking. I don’t care about wishful thinking. I care about honesty and obedience and dreaming the dreams Jesus dreams for us. I care about sticking it out even when you don’t feel like it because Jesus told you to. And that is why there is an aspis on the wall. Her emotions run high, and I love that. But her colors are argent and azure.

She taught me to open new areas of myself to introspection. She taught me new ways to believe in myself - not in the tired, defiant way in which we must never believe in ourselves, but in the simple, humble way of acknowledging what is. She taught me to be more open. And to hold on to the old, Nehemiah-like determination as well.

And that again leaves us with just me. And who am I? Have I grown as a result of knowing all these girls? Well, this is still Speaking Natalie, and I’m not going to answer that question myself in detail. Ask my parents. Most of you know how. I will content myself with saying yes. I am more myself—more who I am supposed to be, and who I long to be—for the varied loves of these women. There is more to say in my heart about each of them than I can say here, or could say here if I had all the time in the world.

Happy Birthday, Shanah. I love you.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Here are some things I’ve learned regarding my beliefs about death in the last week or so. If we need an overarching theme, I suppose it’s that my beliefs about death (which are, I suppose, a subset of the Christian beliefs about death) are weird. That’s not to say paradoxical, or inconsistent, but I have to admit they are weird.

Here’s an example. It turns out that I view death as an almost wholly biological phenomenon. I am highly skeptical of claims that dying people are seeing those who have passed on, or heaven, or have any extraordinary insight that the rest of us don’t have. This is not to say that I think it’s impossible to see those who have passed on, or heaven, or to have literally superhuman insight. It’s just that I think those are relatively extraordinary events, and in any case I don’t see what at all they have to do with death. If anything, I suppose that the dying perceive less than the rest of us.

On the other hand, it’s very important to my conception of death (and, indeed, to my conception of humanity) to affirm that a person is bodily. In Phoenix Earth terms I would say that humans are animals; i.e., they are meant to have bodies and their bodies are an important part of who they are. I reject wholeheartedly the view that the body is merely a shell or a vessel, unconnected from the “real” or spiritual person. When a person dies, in my opinion, they are dying – death is not the mere release of a person’s true self from a wasted shell. When we say that a person dies, I think that they really are dying, and I prefer to call it that. Euphemisms (and I don’t mean the term perjoratively) such as passing away, going home, or even that most ancient of Christian euphemisms, falling asleep, make me uncomfortable.

Of course, it is equally important to my conception of death (and life) to affirm that people are spiritual. That is to say, I believe that we are animals, but also that we are animals with spirits, and those spirits are no less a part of us than our bodies. So while I believe that when a person dies it is they and not a container that is dying, I also believe that there is a part of the person who is not dying.

And what happens to that part after death? The truth is, in most of the ways a person observing a loved one dying might care about, I don’t know. My beliefs don’t include anything on the subject of whether the dead can or cannot hear us when we talk to them, or whether they care about what’s happening on Earth, or are aware of it, or just how it is they remain distinctly themselves separated from a vital part of themselves. My sacred texts are silent on those subjects, and I decline to speculate. My understanding of angels prevents me from imagining that the dead turn into angels (and I wouldn’t find the thought especially comforting even if I did, since as I understand angels they are a warlike and thoroughly inhuman race). But I don’t really know what a person does “turn into” when he or she dies.

For that matter, what do I mean when I say “death?” Christians frequently speak of the first human sin as allowing “death” into the world, and we look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. I look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. But what does that mean? Once upon a time, did organic life really never terminate? Is the existence of carnivores a result of the fallen state of the world (for that matter, is the entire animal scheme of feeding a result of the Fall)? Perhaps, although I admit I find it hard to believe that a lion’s feeding reflex (or a zebra’s) is evil simply because it results in the termination of the food’s biological existence. And were humans truly intended never to die of old age? Do our bodies wear out faster now than they were supposed to, or were they never supposed to wear out at all?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that when we say “death” in this context – death entered the world after the Fall, Jesus conquered death, there will come a day when there is no more dying – we mean something like destruction, and not the mere termination of biological life. So we can speak of the “second death,” when some human spirits will really be destroyed forever. And human death really is death, perhaps not because the animal part of the person is dying but because the person is being sundered.

It is conventional to assume that one holds one’s beliefs about death partially (if not chiefly) as a comfort. Here I am believing that death is merely biological – but also that people are inherently biological. I have no real clue as to what existence is like for a person who has died. I suppose that Christian people probably go to “heaven” (whatever that means, although it certainly sounds not-bad), but I’m not even positive of that (c.f. Ecc. 9:5). These are not especially comforting beliefs. I do have one belief about death which is comforting, and that is the advent of the Phoenix Earth.

It turns out that I really do believe in a day when the Earth (and perhaps, by implication, all of existence) is made new and all those people (or at least, all the ones who were Christian when they died – I’m agnostic about the rest, although I am firm in my belief that there is a bad outcome to this story as well) whose very humanity was sundered by death are given new bodies, when people can be spiritual animals again and in some cosmic not-very-well-understood sense, all is as it should be. I haven’t the slightest idea what those bodies will be like – I suppose they will resemble our current bodies as much as a seed resembles a sunflower. And I haven’t the slightest idea what that new Earth will be like, or whether that Earth will eventually be swallowed up by a dying star as this one is supposed to be, or how the laws of nature will have to change so that all is as it should be, except I imagine we will be surprised by the depth of the corruption worked when “death” entered the world. But it turns out it is enough for me to look forward to a day when the sundering is undone and will never be worked again.

As I said at the beginning, it seems to me that my view of death is pretty weird. But it turns out that it really is my view. And it turns out that it really is comforting after all.