Pangur Ban – An Alliterative Experiment

Pangur Ban is an Old Irish poem about a monk and his pet cat, which is all you need to know to recognize why it’s one of the most important works of literature ever produced.

Now I myself do not speak Old Irish – Yes, yes, you have every right to be shocked and appalled – But I am blessed to receive the sense of the poem through various translations and interpretations, some of which you can find here.


A Cat (I think) in the Book of Kells. I wish my Bible had random animals in it.

I’ve been experimenting with alliterative verse lately, a simplified explanation for which can be found in my last post. Since then I’ve spent some time learning the more technical features of the genre.

It is hard and complicated but still a lot of fun to paw around with. Of course, I had to try making meow own alliterative interpretation of Pangur Ban. I’ve been editing it for over a meownth now trying to make it petter, and it may not be prrfect, but-

I’m sorry, I’ll stop. I’m sure there’s much room for improvement but if I wait until it’s perfect I’ll never get around to sharing it, so here goes.

Of ashen aspect,    agile Pangur
In cattish crafts    carries on always,
Mouse-mused pupil.    In manner of humans,
Foreign to felines     that follow cats’ ways,
I prowl through pages,    reclining on pillows,
Training in texts.    The tamed white lion
regards not my game;    his gift is enough.

Sport’s spirit thrives,    routine yet splendid.
We whet each our wits    in each our own way.
Pest-practiced hunter,    on paws crouched low,
Vaults valiantly    on vermin unwitting.
The mouse is mastered!    Meow! And he sleeps.
I ponder and prowl    perplexing writing.
My catches are curious    scurrying concepts.
From faded folios,    dusty they fall.

Little light figures    and letter-black strokes,
Lights or letters    in little points,
We watch on walls    or paper-white scrolls.
Unerring-eyed pet    stares at an image,
Fixed focus keeping    on fine shifting shapes.
From birth, bone-hued    keen-eyed beastling
Keeps closest watch    as my posture crumbles.
We jump, joyful both    when jobs are finished.

Each so is occupied,    I and pale Pangur,
When that we will,    and ever the while
We two unperturbed.    He at his trade,
And I sifting scripts.    Scholar is Pangur
In circuit-won skill    and I would excel
To unravel riddles    and render them clear.

pangy boon

If y’all haven’t watched The Secret of Kells, y’all really should.

I should resist commenting on my own poem, but I will anyway.

As I learn more about the structure of classical alliterative poetry, the more I realize that much of what I’ve written deviates from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Styles can be innovated, but I try to live by the saying “Learn the rules before you break them.”

“Scurrying” and “Curious” are two of my favourite words that I’ve ever accidentally put together.

“Unravel” is my favourite word in the whole thing.

I’ve rewritten the second stanza a dozen times and I’m still not satisfied with it.


Alliterative 23rd Psalm

We tend to think narrowly about poetry. Open most anthologies of English poetry and you’ll find a ubiquitous feature – it rhymes. Specifically, it rhymes at the end of each line and in consecutive or alternating patterns (ie. AABB or ABAB.) You could also rhyme within the line, or rhyme the end of the line with the beginning of the next line, both of which I’ve seen done. But those don’t make it into the anthologies.

That is far from the only way to do poetry. You may have heard the simplified accounts of far-Eastern poetry being about syllable counts (eg. Haikus) and Hebrew poetry being about “rhyming ideas/images.” And you can do even more. Classical Greek and Latin poets seem to love their meter.

And, long ago, poets of old Germanic tongues mastered alliteration! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with alliterative poetry, reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure and some of Tolkien’s modernizations of Middle English poetry. I’ve been trying to teach myself to write in this ancient English form and I figured I’d share one of my earliest attempts (I hope one of the first of many).

I’ll add a couple comments at the end, but first just one quick note. When reading conventional rhyming poetry, you anticipate the rhyme at the end of the line. So how does alliterative poetry work? What do we expect? What gives it its form? It’s quite simple.

You got two half-lines we call hemistichs (like Hemisphere and Stick). The first hemistich has two alliterating stressed syllables. They can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word but they gotta be stressed. The second hemistich (separated by a little space called a caesura) gives you one more alliterating syllable to round it off. Once you know what to look for, it gives each line a nice sense of resolution. Like with rhyming poetry, the poet can then subvert those expectations for varying effects. So here’s what that looks like in action.

The Wool-Ward – by Aaron Wilkinson

He who all holds   in His hand is my herdsman.
I grasp not for gold,   my gullet to bloat with,
My needs are nothing,   I am never without.
I’ll want for no wealth,   never wish for more.

By freely flowing   waters refreshing,
And bath-worthy brooks,   bending rivers,
Clear courses bright,   falling through fields,
There I am found,   reclined by the banks.

I graze on green grasses,   enough on the ground,
In the Wool-Ward’s shade   through warmth of noon.
When my throat hisses   for thirst and hunger,
He finds where to feed   refreshing me fully.

When days grow dark   as though dawn was never
And hot sun is hid   by high mount peaks,
Down in the dark dale,   death’s dismal den,
I follow and fare well   knowing no fright.

My courage’s cause   is only your closeness.
I am rallied and righted   by your crook and rood.
In faces of foes   you fill up my table.
The froth of the mead   falls from my mug.

Fate has me followed   by favour and faith
All this loaned life   in the length of days.
The hall of the Holy   I will call home
And sit with the saints   in the seats of that hall.

A few end notes. Many will recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. Most of my experiments in alliterative poetry have been with biblical poems so far. It presents a series of interesting challenges and opportunities. What I’m trying to do is take a Hebrew text replete with Hebrew images and ideas and then describe it with language and images from the medieval English tradition. I’m not yet sure if the result is a funky fusion or a disharmonious mess.

In either case, what I think a new (or rather ‘forgotten’) genre of poetry allows us to do is innovate. Some of those innovations will be victories, others disasters.

A major occasion for such innovations is within the restrictions of the genre. You can’t just state something directly if the words don’t alliterate. I can’t use words like “Shepherd” or “Lord” if it doesn’t fit the context. So I have to invent new ways of describing things, sometimes speaking around or circumlocuting the subject of the line. This can give us all sorts of fun results like “Wool-Ward,” which is my favourite part of this little experiment.

And as a side note for those already in love with medieval English poetry, I do want to admit that I directly imported some language just for fun. Rood (a word related to “rod”) recalls The Dream of the Rood, the mead hall is a common setting especially in Beowulf, etc.

Kay, now go write your own. If you wanna get a better feel for this love-lorn genre, read Tolkien’s modernization of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Shadow of the Valley of Text

I’ve been reading about Hebrew poetry lately and I’ve realized that I may have been reading Psalm 23 all wrong.

Over-familiarity is our worst friend when we’re trying to develop a deep understanding of a text. I’ve heard the words “The Lord is my shepherd” and everything that comes after so many times that I’ve come to take it for granted. It becomes an absent-minded recitation. While I think all of us who grew up in the church have a grasp for the basic ethos of the poem, I’m discovering that Hebrew poetry demands that the reader slow down to really unpack the parallel images and words that characterize it.

I’ll assume you’ve read or heard or sung this poem before. Shepherd, Green Pastures, Quiet Waters. This part makes me feel nice. Although the line “I shall not want” feels more like a wish than an assertion. When I see my friends getting promoted or engaged, I definitely do want. I could say a lot about how profoundly rebellious this statement is against an ambitious and consumeristic culture, but that’s not my main point.

The tranquil tapestry of this mellow meadow ends with this.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

And then…


New paragraph

A gap in the formatting of the text! Now we’re going to talk about a new idea. If this were a film, we might put a scene transition here. The tone is still optimistic but we’re no longer in that prior pastoral paradise.

But were we ever?

The way that the text is usually formatted suggests a shift that I’m not sure is meant to be there. Verse 3 and Verse 4 both use language of journeying. Being lead down the path and walking through the valley. Verses 1 and 2 show us images of stillness. Verses 3 and 4 get us moving. Unless the editors of the text are using the gap between the verses to symbolize a valley between hills, I think this break can be misleading.

Picture this: our scene opens on a young lamb, grazing on grass and sipping from a stream. We then see the lamb approached by a strong but gentle shepherd who signals to the lamb with his staff that it’s time to get moving. The lamb hops up and begins following the shepherd. As they go, they walk. They don’t run. They don’t hide. They walk.

Zoom out and we see that the two are, in fact, in a dark valley. Clouds thunder overhead and predators growl in the distance. Abandoned arrows, slash marks from swords, and spots of blood speak of some battle that was fought here recently. Warriors may still be crouching around the next bend. And there they walk, the sheep and the shepherd. Stopping for a break and a snack every now and then.

The green fields with quiet waters and the valley of the shadow of death aren’t two places. They are one. And Verses 5 and 6 will confirm this for us. How does the poem begin? Fields to graze in, water to drink, rest for the soul. Food, drink, rest. How does it end? A table in front of my enemies, an overflowing cup, goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. Food, drink, rest – not in some idyllic ethereal otherworld, but in the very presence of enemies and threats. There are always the enemies, the shadow of death, but also the shepherd offers provision and comfort.

What’s more, we’ve zoomed out even further. We began in the sheep’s little world: the grass, the water, the shepherd. We zoomed out to see what the shepherd is protecting the sheep from: the valley. Now we are in “The house of the Lord, forever.” We end in the eternal transcendent House (surely this encompasses all creation) and the enemies and valleys are left sandwiched – surrounded – between the immediate local provision of the shepherd and the eternal promises of the future.

I’m sure there are layers of this poem that I’m still missing. The Israelites were masters of poetry so I’m sure that there are layers that shine out much better in the original language. But this poem is dense even in English. It’s packed. The images are tied together brilliantly and even the subtle implications of a verb like “walk” are carefully selected to tell us something about the beautiful relationship that God has to his creation, and the relationship between his providence and our challenges.

I think we miss this when we treat the Psalms first as theology and as poetry second. When we slow down and read them as poetry, their theology becomes much more profound.



Biblical Contradictions – They Exist and I Love Them

(This is a line of thought I’m still journeying through. You may find something helpful or not. It’s cool either way.)

In highschool, a lot of my atheist classmates would talk about contradictions in the Bible. I didn’t really pay much attention. I figured they were probably wrong. My pastors and youth leaders never mentioned these supposed contradictions so I figured it wasn’t worth worrying about.

When I got into the habit of listening to debates, I began to hear atheists point to specific contradictions. In response, the Christian apologists would calmly explain them away.

“Take the sentences ‘Bob is rich’ and ‘Bob is poor’. You might assume that these are contradictions, but perhaps they refer to Bob at different times in his life. Perhaps Bob is poor in finances, but rich in terms of relationships and experiences. Perhaps there are two different people named Bob. We can’t assume and we have to know more.” This is, of course, a very good point and I found it very comforting.

But then in a university class a professor pointed my discussion group to a passage in Proverbs. We were supposed to interpret it and share our interpretation.


Proverbs 26:4,5

I read the first half thinking “Ah, reasonable.” Then the second verse completely froze me. “This is Proverbs. This is the book of rules to live by. I can’t do both of these things, so what do I do?” I tried to find ways to harmonize them – maybe you’re supposed to do it sometimes but not other times – but even then, am I not sitting there trying to fix the Bible? Am I not adding something to it?

Here’s another one. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us one thing, Paul tells us another.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” – Ecclesiastes 1:2,3
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” – 1 Corinthians 15:58

Well, which is it? Do we get nothing but vanity for our toil under the sun, or is our labour not in vain? I could list dozens more but sadly I must be concise. Here’s another one in which Chronicles and Samuel are talking about the same story.

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” – 1 Chronicles 19:15
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”” – 2 Samuel 24:1

Chronicles: Satan did X. Samuel: God did X. Conclusion: … What?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there trying to harmonize, harmonize, harmonize all of these passages. There may be nothing wrong with that. It’s a good impulse, but I fear we might miss out on something if that’s all we do. What that something is I will tell you, after one more example. Or rather, six more.

Open up to Matthew 5 and you’ll hear Jesus saying he’s not coming to abolish the law or the prophets. Then he goes on to repeat the formula “You have heard it said (quotes the Bible) but I tell you (says something different.)” So here we have a double whammy of contradictions. Six times, we have Jesus speaking in contrast to (“Contra Dicting”) other Bible passages, and he frames this by saying that he isn’t going to take an iota away from other Bible passages.

Right now, you’re either fascinated or really offended. Or both. Or you’re thinking the obvious objection that I’m going to cover in one second.

If the Bible is supposed to be a book of rules, it has clearly failed. I can’t both answer a fool according to folly and not answer a fool according to folly. If the Bible is supposed to be a philosophical panegyric, it has clearly failed. Labour can’t be both vanity and not vanity. If the Bible is supposed to be a textbook on spiritual realities, it has clearly failed. Unless God and Satan are the same person, David’s census has some weird stuff going on.

So it seems we’re left with two options. Maybe the Bible is a failure, or maybe we need to rethink its genre.

When I was in therapy, I learned a word. A word I had never learned from any western education institution; perhaps the entire western world needs therapy. “Dialectic.” Think Dialogue. It’s a conversation. Dialectic thinking simultaneously holds two propositions that seem to be in contrast. In therapy, if I’m caught in the anxiety of thinking I’m absolutely terrible or totally perfect, I’m going to have problems. If I can learn to accept that I’m both good and bad, virtuous in many ways while also having weaknesses to work through, that frees me. Now I can grow more easily.

My virtues and my vices are contradictory, but if I can hold them both as true at the same time then I am empowered to grow. The aforementioned objection that I assume you’re thinking is “But you’re defining ‘contradiction’ incorrectly. Contradictions are not simply contrasting statements, but statements with mutually exclusive meanings. You have to consider the meanings of these verses in context.” A brilliant point which highlights two important things: first that the word ‘contradiction’ needs defining (which I rarely hear happen) and tends to be wrapped up in shades of association, and second that we must ask ourselves what the Bible intends.

In the famous (and occasionally infamous) story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner by asking him whether the woman ought to be stoned or not. Jesus redirects the question towards something more important. He seems to do this quite often, and what he does in saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” is highlight the Pharisee’s need for forgiveness. Jesus contextualizes our questions and frames our understanding in humility. This, I think, is the intention of the whole Bible.

The Bible does not give us all the answers, it points us to a person. It’s a conversation anchored around a person.

Do I answer the fool according to his folly or not? I don’t know, but if I follow the love ethic of Jesus then I’m sure I’ll make the right choice.

Is our labour vanity or not? I can philosophize over this, but if I’m trusting Christ then I know I won’t need to worry about it.

What is the relationship between the will of God and the will of Satan? Does God incite evil against us? A very interesting question, but one that must consider how God shows his love by participating in our suffering himself in the life and crucifixion of the Son of Mary.

People sometimes describe the Bible as “living” and this is why. A plain set of instructions is static. It’s dead. It only goes so deep and then it’s exhausted. A dialectic work keeps you wondering, keeps you asking questions. It is popularly said that Rabbis answer questions with other questions. This isn’t just deflection. We’re supposed to think deeper and, more importantly, better realize how the answers must be found with Jesus.

I recently listened to a sermon in which Bruxy of the Meeting House interviewed a Zen Buddhist. The Buddhist compared Jesus’ style of teaching with the Koan, the saying or question that’s supposed to freeze your mind and expose your unhealthy patters of thinking. While I think it’s important to recognize that Buddha and Christ have very different goals, there is some true to this. The Bible Project also has a great series that explores some the dialectic aspects of biblical wisdom literature.

In our broken world, if we desire change and growth, we don’t need a static book of precepts. We need someone who is going to freeze our attention, expose our habits, and “make foolish the wisdom of the world.” We need change, not the status quo. We need a living dynamic person to walk with as we grow in life and this is the Christ of the Bible.

This isn’t intellectual foreclosure. It does mean applying our intellect to something more important rather than squabbling over facts and figures. It means finding ourselves in a story, in relation to Christ, and making that the grounds upon which we ask ourselves, and each other, the big questions.

Take us away, Book…

it fixes you

Offensive Jesus

I occasionally make trips into the downtown and pass by crowds of the homeless, mentally disabled, physically disabled, and otherwise down on their luck. I know I’m supposed to be compassionate but it’s difficult. Admitting that it’s difficult doesn’t change my responsibilities, but I acknowledge that I feel very uncomfortable around these people.

I also pass by smokers, drinkers, angry people, rude people, smelly people, and people who dress without any sense of modesty. They aren’t down on their luck, I think to myself. They aren’t victims of a broken world, they are irresponsible, stupid, immoral people. I start to get angry. I am deeply offended that people like that exist.

I only moved into the downtown a year ago. Before then I was a child in a good Christian home, later working the summers at a good Christian summer camp, and then going to a good private Christian university. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the ugly side of the human condition but I almost never had to think about it and certainly didn’t have to regularly face it.

Now it’s becoming more and more apparent to me just what scum human beings can be and as this becomes clearer and clearer another idea becomes more prominent in tandem – these people are made in God’s image and he loves them.

Matthew 25 tells us that, to Jesus, the way we treat others is the way we treat him. When I was re-reading this chapter, I was surprised to discover that I had forgotten a part of it. I remembered the parts where he talks about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, and clothes to the naked. That all sounds very good. But he also talks about visiting criminals and comforting them in prison.

So I’m to understand that God is so intimately connected with inmates (and who knows what horrible things they did to end up there) that I am to see them as the image of God and treat them as I would treat him? I previously thought I understood this but it only occurs to me now how scandalous – how offensive that idea is.

And it’s not just that. The entire story of Jesus is one big scandal. The rightful king of the universe gets born to a disreputable mother in a place where animals poop, condescends to be baptized by John (despite his protests), lives his life as a homeless weirdo, spends his time with corrupt government employees and adulterers, washes his disciples smelly feet like a servant, and then gets humiliated and killed. If I were to see this guy on my block, I think I’d cross to the other side of the road.

Imagine if some guy walked into your church, grabbed the baptismal font full of consecrated water for a holy sacrament, turned that water into beer, and gave it to the drunk guy outside. That’s sacrilegious. That’s the Marriage at Cana.

I am certainly not saying that Jesus isn’t holy and uniquely worthy of our absolute respect and devotion. In fact, I’m trying to say that Jesus is uniquely worthy of our absolute respect and devotion. Not the traditions, rituals, catechisms, etc. If I, who spent the first two decades of my life in Christian circles, can be suddenly jolted and upset by Jesus, then clearly it’s not enough to passively inherit a nominal faith. A living faith will upset you from time to time. It’ll offend you. If we’re in relationship with a real person and not a figure of our imagination, every now and then they’ll be someone we didn’t want or expect them to be. Then we have a choice to either walk away, or be uncomfortable for a while.

I am learning to see Christ in the people I would otherwise despise. It’s upsetting and I’m glad it is. It tells me I’m going in the right direction.

God is pure. God is morally perfect. God is worthy of our recognition, not in part but completely. And if I’m really after God, I have to recognize that one time he became really really unpleasant in order to make the rest of us unpleasant people, including myself at times, more like him.

On the Subjective Banality of Talent

I’m blessed to have been an adult when I fell in love with choral music. Why blessed? Well, I find that the things we come to love in childhood end up being taken for granted. I can’t remember a world without television so I can’t remember ever being struck by its wonder and complexity. In fact, I mostly find television annoying. When you discover things as an adult you appreciate them better. You “remember the day you fist met”, so to speak.

The first time in university when I sat in the auditorium listening to vigorously rehearsed and polished choral music produced live in real space, I felt like I had just seen a new colour that never existed before. It was so captivating. And I remember thinking “I have to at least try to join this choir and participate in this glorious art!”

Then there followed the romance of how I ended up joining the choir. It became perhaps the most impactful, moving, and transformitive experience of my life. I’ve recited that romance before and I will again a thousand times, but a part I often leave out is a very encouraging anticlimax.

The first piece I ever performed with the choir was Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit- which is beautiful and wonderful and one of the single most important choral pieces to me personally, yadda yadda yadda. But singing it was very different to what I heard sitting in the audience 6 months prior.

The audience experiences the piece as a whole; all its harmonies and movements. The singer, conversely, is on a battlefield. The singer has to pay attention to his part and remain attentive to the direction of the conductor. The singer sacrifices enjoyment of the whole in order to know his place and play his part. It’s still a wonderful experience, but it is a different experience that may not grasp the full beauty of the piece.

I was half-expecting the sound to be more beautiful from the stage, but it was actually less.

And this makes me think about talents. I often compliment others on their talents and skills only to have them have seemingly no clue what I’m talking about. I’ve also had people say very nice things to me about things that I wouldn’t consider impressive at all.

Perhaps it is just the nature of our talents that, when we are performing or exercising them, we don’t see their full beauty. But we can take on faith the praises of our friends and appreciate ourselves through their applause. And perhaps it’s better this way. Perhaps this keeps us humble.

So here’s the takeaway: you are probably much more impressive than you think. Appreciate the people around you and own the applause when it comes your way. What you do may not feel like much but if you saw someone else doing the exact same thing, you might just be blown away.

As regards my choir romance, there were a thousand powerful moments that followed that one anticlimax, but I’m glad it happened. It taught me that what feels like the average day to me might actually be worth much more.

Stupid Peace

I generally like to write blog posts that are self-contained isolated thoughts, but today what I happen to have on my mind piggybacks what I wrote about anxiety last time.

There, I mentioned that my brain “handles” differently now. I have a bit more control over where my thoughts go than I used to. I can steer them, but they don’t turn on a dime. Anxiety still strikes, but now I can do something about it.

A phrase from the Bible that has followed me around for quite a long time is “The peace that passes understanding,” (Phil 4:7). The thing is, I’ve never quite understood what that means. The “peace that passes understanding” passes my understanding. I can partially grasp the idea: because we know that we’re in God’s hands, we can have peace even if everything in our life, as we understand it, is falling apart. We have a peace that transcends what we see in our day to day life.

The problem with this concept is that we’re necessarily giving something up. We handing over our security in ourselves (or lack thereof) and in a self-effacing surrender we’re giving up our desire to be in control and in the know.

This completely irrational foreclosure of individual understanding is called “Trust” and I hate it.

On a similar note, Proverbs 3:5 tells to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” To Western ears, this is the most ridiculous and offensive idea anyone could come up with – willfully not understanding. I imagine it’s also, to those of us prone to anxiousness, extremely attractive.

So I’m still struggling to achieve functional adulthood (whatever that means) and today I was told by my dentist that I might need an unexpected procedure donet. A minor procedure for a minor problem, but a pricey one. And on the walk back I was worrying a lot. But then I took the reins of my Serotonin-replete brain and thought “What if I just choose not to worry about it?”

“Yeah, it feels incredibly stupid to not worry about it because it’s a rather harsh blow to the bank account. It’s an objectively miserable thing to have to deal with, but worrying about it doesn’t get me to a solution any faster so why I don’t I just skip the anxiousness phase and make the most of my day?”

And then I went home and took what a friend of mine calls a “depression nap.” You know, when sleeping is easier than thinking about the thing. Again, it doesn’t turn on a dime, but it can be gradually nudged in the right direction.

The peace that passes understanding is a stupid peace because we, in and of ourselves, have no reason- we see no cause for peace. We, in and of ourselves, have no control. But if there’s someone we can trust watching out for us, maybe a little bit of stupidity isn’t just quite pleasant but in fact the most rational response.

It might take a few hours, it might take a few days, but I’ll get past this emotional bump in the road and hop back on the highway to peace. The way there is rather counter-intuitive but it gets easier once you get the hang of it.

A Journey with Anxiety

When I was in elementary school, I was always afraid of my teachers being mad at me.
When I was in high school, I would get very nervous about being at the right place at the right time if my parents were picking me up anywhere.
When I was working at a bakery, I found it physically difficult to walk in the door for fear of my boss being mad at me.
When I was working at summer camp, I hated having to take responsibility for the campers.
When I was in university, I felt immensely pressured by due dates.
Since graduating, I’ve been terribly fearful over money and employment.



I’m anxious. I used to tell myself that all my anxiety was just circumstantial and that I’d feel better once my circumstances changed. But I could only tell myself that so many times before I started to grow suspicious of myself.

Only a few months back, I had a panic attack for which I went to the emergency room. I thought I was having a heart attack but the doctors told me I was fine. I felt a bit better afterwards but I still cringe to remember it.

Then, shortly before Christmas, some dreadful havoc was unleashed on my stomach. Apparently anxiety messes with your digestive tract. My appetite was suffering and it was painful to eat. I was losing weight and there were a couple mornings that I felt almost too weak to stand.

When I finally went to my family doctor, he prescribed me two things: a strong antacid, and a light sedative. He told me that I was hyperventilating. I thought that I was breathing normally. Looking back, I must have been hyperventilating on and off for almost a week.

I went home and took the antacid and sedative and my appetite immediately increased a little bit. There were some other tests done and a variety of drugs, but I still felt very fearful even though I was starting to get better. Then I was prescribed a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor.

SSRIs balance out chemicals in the brain that make emotions happen. If your Serotonin levels are too low, you get depressed or anxious or obsessive. SSRIs can take a while to start having their effect. You might take them for two months before any noticeable change.

And there are the side effects, which were worse than average for me since my stomach was already not doing well. On the night after I took the first pill, I woke up at three in the morning and threw up. It took several weeks for the side effects to subside.

Now a couple months have passed. The side effects have faded, but even better – my anxiety is far better. It’s not gone but it’s lower. I still have anxious thoughts, but they pass more easily. Even better still – I now find it much easier to find satisfaction in the small things in life. The beauty of a house in my neighbourhood, an interesting piece of poetry, playing with my roommate’s dogs. All these things add up and make life much more enjoyable.

We sometimes talk about ‘handling’ with vehicles or ‘controls’ with videogames – the interaction between the user’s intentions and the behaviour of the thing being acted upon. My brain handles differently now. Just a bit, but a noticeable bit. Not enough to make me a different person, but enough to make me less afraid. I feel less shy in conversations and less inhibited in my actions (on one occasion getting me into trouble with a mall security guard, but now I don’t cringe as much when I remember it.)

And I now know with deeper understanding that there is a me that is more than the condition of my brain. There is some me that is deeper than even my thoughts and thought patterns. Those may change, but there’s some ineffable quality that doesn’t.

When I was home around Christmas, I could barely eat because my anxiety had messed up my stomach so much. When I was home just last week, my dad was complaining that I was eating too much. I was never so grateful to be considered a glutton. I am blessed to know that there are people in my life who support me, blessed to know that I’m not alone, and blessed to know that troubled times pass.

I don’t think it’s mere wishful thinking to tell a suffering person, as my parent did, “Ooh, Child. Things are gonna get easier.”

About Old Books

I both love and hate owning old books. I love it because old things are awesome. I love the mystery of reading an old book and picking up occasional clues as to who owned it before and where it came from. I love the look, the feel, and the smell of old books. It turns reading into a very sensory experience.

old book


I hate it because old books grow fragile. As I read them and use them, I often can’t shake the thought that I am contributing to their wear. I feel guilty about touching it.

At one point I got my hands on a cheap Latin Bible that was over a hundred years old. It was beautiful and also very portable. I could fit it in my pocket. One time I was casually reading it in my university dorm room. I opened it gently but the fragility of the binding was greater than my exceptional care and the hard cover tore from the spine. I’ve done a lot of morally questionable things in my life but breaking that Bible was definitely the worst.

So my antiquarian bibliophilia presents a conflict of interests. I want to own old books because I love them but I also think that far more deserving people should own them because I know they can care for them better.

I was thinking about this dilemma while waiting for the bus a few days ago and something occurred to me. My use of the centenarian Vulgate led to its partial destruction but it also lead to me better understanding the Latin language. The book ages but the words on the page and the language itself find new life. I may have contributed to the wear of the book but I’m contributing to the continuation of the language and text at the same time.

The physical vessel for the words, the book, is worn down but the words find a new physical vessel, myself. I’m not going to go around destroying books on purpose now, but ancient things find new life when we study them and carry them forward.

One of my favourite pieces of music is The Seikilos Epitaph, which according to Wikipedia is “the oldest complete surviving musical composition.” I’ve committed it to memory and its tune is one of the things I’ll whistle to myself while impatiently waiting for the bus.

If I were to go back to first century Ephesus where the epitaph was found, I would have something in common with them right off the bat. It’s nice to know I have friends 2000 years ago.

Physical things are still well worth preserving. In fact, they should absolutely be preserved and by people more capable than myself. 100 year old books are not actually all that rare but there are things that are hundreds or thousands of years old that should probably be out of my reach. But we can all play our part in preserving the beauty of ancient things by studying them and sharing them.

As for damaging the old Vulgate, I will turn myself into the police immediately.

Sleep, Surrender, and Death (And Hope)

In highschool I became fascinated with sleep. No, I don’t mean that I spent a lot of time sleeping. I was actually routinely underslept throughout highschool. Rather, I thought about the idea of sleep a lot during my waking hours.

This is the thing that fascinated me: when I fall asleep, I completely relinquish conscious control over myself. I am no longer self aware, no longer thinking, no longer feeling. Yet somehow when I wake up (a thing that happens outside my conscious control) I’m still me. I still have the same memories, same interests, same skills, etc. But now I feel even better for having rested, more energetic and more alive.

Forget all the science for a moment and think of the personal experience of it. As far as you are aware, you stop existing. Then you pop back into existence some time later and think “Man, I sure am glad I stopped existing for 8 whole hours.” Humans are weird.

Over the past few months, I was the most sick I have ever been. For a couple weeks I could barely eat, was loosing weight, and in pretty routine stomach pain. It seems that what I was dealing with was the physiological consequences of anxiety, which is now being treated effectively. During the worst of it, however, I couldn’t do much more than lie on the couch and hope I wasn’t dying.

I couldn’t do the things that make me me. I had no energy to read, write, sing, or act. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t me anymore.

Then after it was all over and I started getting better, suddenly my motivation to do things had grown. I started spending a lot more time reading and my desire to do other things increased.

All throughout this journey, I spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about death. Death is scary. Death is unknown and unpleasant. Death is the ultimate release of all our control, all our awareness, and all the things that make us who we are. And though none of us can claim to have perfect knowledge of how it works, most human beings believe in some kind of life after death.

We sleep, but something sustains us. We fall, but something catches us.

And it reminds me of the words of Christ when he said “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” There is the unpleasantness of surrendering to something, but the story doesn’t end there.

While I was sick I had to have a procedure done for which I was sedated. When they administered the anesthetic, I was out in seconds and completely out of my control. Then the next thing I knew, before I was aware of sights or sounds of the recovery room, before I was even aware of my own body, before anything else entered my consciousness, the words “Our Father, hallowed be your name” flashed into my mind. Then slowly my mind drifted back into the recovery room and I ate a slice of pizza and my mom was there.

If this is a picture of what death is like, maybe I can spend a little less time being afraid of it and a little more time enjoying life.