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February 2012

Living With Style (Rule Nine): Don't Be Breezy

"9. Do not affect a breezy manner."

("An Approach to Style," in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White)

Pomposity and longwindedness is not limited to attorneys who employ an oxymoron like "brief" to describe a lengthy and sometimes verbose collection of words to make a few points.  That's what education can do for you.

And yet attorneys do often deserve that description.  Once, during a phone conversation with a fellow advocate, I fell asleep.  I awoke, some minutes later.  He was still rattling on and never missed me.

Writing, like speech, should never draw attention to self, should be as spare as necessary to convey the point.  E.B. White says it well: "The breezy style is often the work of the egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."  Back then (1957), he was right in saying that "[t]he volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it. . . ."  So much written, so little said.  These days, with the advent of social networking, we might say the same about the largely empty bytes one reads.  What you just ate, watched, or clearly remarked is of doubtful interest.  Give me 140 characters I will remember.  How many can do that?

Scripture advises us to "let another praise us," another way of saying (as White does), that we write (and speak) well by "staying out of the act."  I'll add that when we are in the act, it must be when we become a particular for the universal, as when a friend tweeted "I am sitting in the dark by my window watching traffic pass," and it wasn't just her but me watching life go by while I sit in the darkness or quietness of a moment of sorrow, loss, or thought, wrapped in a cocoon while the world rushes by at its normal business .  My life stops, momentarily, and I see what has passed and imagine what will come.  Those are words worth spending, calm not breezy, full of humanity.

Avoid breezy people and prose.  Don't spend a precious word, spoken or written, unless it is is "to encourage one another and build one another up" (I Thess. 5:11).  After all, "[a] man finds joy in giving an apt reply --- and how good is a timely word!" (Prov. 15:23).

[The foregoing is a part of a little (as yet, unfinished) series based on E.B. White's "An Approach to Style," the fifth chapter of Strunk and White's classic work, The Elements of Style.  I found his guide to "style" relevant not only to writing but to life in general, as well as consistent, though not explicitly, with Scripture.  To read more in that series, go here.]




"I should be able to describe a patch of ground so faithfully that you would know it if you came upon it. . . and could traverse it if you had to, with no hazard to your life.  To do less for the interior landscape of a woman or man or child, or the pitfalls the world presents to them, is irresponsible."

(Larry Woiwode, in "Homeplace: Heaven or Hell," collected in Words Made Fresh)

Elsewhere Woiwode writes that writers "should expect to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths" (his emphasis).  It makes you want to stop writing, for that matter, when you begin to think of the responsibility attached to words --- for that matter, stop preaching, stop teaching, stop talking.  In an economy where words are cheap, where expression is profligate, Woiwide's scary words are a good wake up call to responsibility, and I am convicted.

Until I was about four I lived in a small, one story, cookie cutter house in a Greensboro suburb thrown up in the boom following World War II.  There was a patch of rutted grass in the front and a small hill, and then another patch of fescue and crabgrass and dandelions in the back, and then another hill, with a chain link fence at our property line and a swimming pool manufacturer on the other side.  I looked longingly through that fence at a concrete-lined and empty demonstration pool.  The fence represented the edge of my world; the pool, adventure.  I could not leave my yard, play in the street, go unescorted to a neighbor's house.  My life was bounded, carefully controlled, limited by loving parents who held me responsible for where my feet took me.  That was my patch of ground.  It was a topography shaped by love.  It was a frame in which a settled longing developed: I loved home, I wondered, I longed to push past the boundaries, I loved home --- an ever-widening circle of longing.  It was my patch of ground, but I was looking out, full of hope for what was to come.

Woiwode says our hope of the heavenly city, the place we long for, should not "dislocate us from our homework on earth."  Never has homework been given such a positive and yet sober connotation.  We have things to do, good things.

At yet at four my homework was simple.  Play here, not there; brush your teeth; keep your hands to yourself; don't talk to strangers; do look at people's eyes when you speak to them; go to sleep; say your prayers; use a napkin.  Behave.

But at 53, homework is a challenge.   I try and say a faithful word, and I sense the tug of ego.  Self rears its head, and even here, as I try and speak of it, I wonder if my even naming it will accrue to my benefit.  It's laughable!  Garrison Keillor, a frustrated poetry judge at one juncture, said "self expression is not what it's about, people!"  What he went on to say was that writers should write about the universals, about the particulars that might actually resonate with people --- not to emote on paper, try to impress, call attention to yourself, show off.

I'm a long way from the cookie-cutter house, leagues from the clarity of my parents' rules.  The homework is complicated, full of permutations and combinations, thorny word problems and moral dilemmas.  Full of too much me.  When Woiwode speaks of idle words I first point the finger at politicians, talk-show hosts, news commentators, and even (sadly) some preachers, but the wagging finger ultimately points back at me, accuses me of thoughtless words, puffed up words, carefully constructed sounds that only say "Look at me.  Aren't I clever?"

But we don't have time to navel-gaze about motive, to question every turn of phrase and every good deed.  Let's face it: We are people of impure motives.  But we have our homework that must be done, nonetheless, for love or for duty.  I have my patch of ground, and I have to describe it.  It's part of my homework, and there are no crib notes.

The name of the street I lived on?  I have to laugh.  It was Idlewood.  A warning, a challenge, a promise --- to the me to come.  To the day when no word will be impure or idle.

Shelter Me

The second intimation of deep, cosmic joy. . . is really a variation of the first: the sensation of shelter, of being out of the rain, but just out.  I would lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side; I would huddle under bushes until the rain penetrated; I loved doorways in a shower.  On our side porch, it was my humble job, when it rained, to turn the wicker furniture with its seats to the wall, and in these porous caves I would crouch, happy almost to tears, as the rain drummed on the porch rail and rattled the grape leaves of the arbor and touched my wicker shelter with a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army.

(John Updike, in Of the Farm)

Lean close to the chill windowpane to hear the raindrops tickling on the other side. . . .  How appropriate to read this today, as a steady rain falls, as I lean in, prompted by Updike's words, to hear the rain but, not only that, to be reminded of the thin membrane that divides the interior of my warm and dry home from the elements without.  Shelter.

I am not alone, Updike says, and I say the experience is not singular even to me.  Many times as a child I lay curled on the floor of my parents' station wagon savoring the shelter and heat at my mother's feet. Many was the fort my sister and I built from a card table covered by a blanket, a light within, darkness without.  Many was the tent I lay in at night, reaching my hand out to touch the almost paper thin canvas that kept out the night.

In restaurants, I seek out corners, booths, places out of the open, hemmed in, protected.  I gravitate to corners, relish a window from which I can see without but be within.  An automobile seems impregnable, a mobile extension of home; a good book, order out of chaos; a lamp, a divider of night and day, of good from evil; a friend's face, assurance among strangers.

Shelter from the storm.  A temporal assurance.  A fallible yet real metaphor for the only true shelter, that "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ will abide in the shadow of the/ Almighty" (Ps. 91:1).

Press your fingers to the inside of the old tent canvas, and rain may seep through.  SUVs crinkle in pileups. Houses sometimes leak, and windows crack. Like Updike, you can catch the deep, cosmic joy of being out in the elements, out in the world, and yet not of the world, of being sheltered.  You sense the deep shelter of the God in whose shadow you dwell, in whose house you live.  Outside that, it's cold and wet and dark.  Why would anyone want to live out there?

My sister said there were goblins out there, monsters that eat children.  I lifted the blanket corner, saw the spooky silhouettes of them, heard the groanings of the furnace, spied the flicker of the pilot light.  I dropped the blanket, felt something like joy from the fragile refuge we enjoyed, happy almost to tears. Even now that room in the darkness testifies to me of the shelter to come, becomes a prayer I summon every day: Shelter me, I say.  Draw the flaps around me.  Make me happy --- beyond tears.

[Do not think me so literate as to read John Updike.  The quote is from an essay on Updike by Larry Woiwode, collected in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011).  You can be impressed by my reading that book, at least a little, though my comprehension of it is like that of seeing through a glass dimly.  Woiwode's book is the source of many a rumination, some which may find their way here, others of which may be inarticulable.]


An Imperfect Metaphor, A Perfect God

When I was about nine years old, a young boy, I went with my parents, younger sister, and older cousin to a national park in the mountains.  As a boy, I loved maps.  I plotted out where we would go, told my Dad the direction and what roads to take, and when we arrived found a short trail on a map of the park that I wanted to hike along with my sister and cousin.  My parents said they were tired and decided to stay in the car and wait for us, maybe take a nap.

We set off.  I led the way, switchbacking up the mountain, periodically stepping over little rivulets of water trickling down the mountain face.  After about 20 minutes, I realized that we had taken the wrong trail, as it was missing all the interpretive signs of the nature trail I planned on.  I told my sister and cousin that we should go back before we became lost.  My cousin, two years older and a girl, refused.  My sister, aligned with gender before blood, also refused.  After trying to persuade them, I returned to the car to tell my parents.  My Mom was a little upset with me for leaving them on the trail.

My Dad took me and we returned to the trail to look for my sister sand cousin.  After we reached the place where I left them, they were not there.  I knew we were near a trail that was very long, the Appalachian Trail, one that stretched a then inconceivable hundreds of miles across the mountains.  I had quite an imagination.  I envisioned my sister and cousin lost on that trail, unable to find their way home, hungry, thirsty, beset by bears and other wild animals I had read about, and I felt like I was responsible --- just me --- and that I had to find them.  But I did not know where to start.  I started crying, and my Dad did not get upset but hugged me and told me not to worry, that we would find them.  And I believed he would.  I was confident that my father would find them.  I felt a great weight lifted from me knowing that he would find them, that he would know what to do.

It's not difficult to picture God's care through my father's love.  It's probably the most prevalent of scriptural metaphors and has been massaged to the point of cliche.  However, my father, though good,  was an imperfect metaphor for God.  He was not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, much less all-wise, and he certainly was not immortal.  He had no power to protect me from most of the difficulties I would face in life, foresee future peril, or be with me at all times.  But I did not know that then, and I did not need to.  

We walked for over two hours, calling their names.  We never saw them.  We made it over the mountain and to the access road, my Dad doubtless weighed down by the burden of two lost children.  A park ranger picked us up and carried us back to our car.  They were there.

There is no perfect metaphor for the One who finds lost children.  But I had a father who did what he could and pointed beyond himself to an ever-present guide, who reminds me even now that someone more able than me leads.  

I can't disparage the metaphor even as I realize its limitations.  If, as Dorothy Sayers once said, all thinking is analogical, then it is impossible not to think in metaphors when considering the nature of a God whose self-disclosure is limited if sufficient.  Forgive me then when I double the metaphors: I am out walking.  I am sometimes lost.  But my Father will always find me.  His business is bringing lost children home.