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October 2007
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Is there a "usable past"? Is there some way to distinguish the history we must leave behind in order to grow from the history which nourishes and supports us?

With All Saints Day a few days back and All Saints Sunday coming tomorrow, that question has pressed in on me all week. It's a question that was posed to a number of writers back in 1939, and James Agee included his answer in the middle of his book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men". Although his book is ostensibly about the life of three families of white sharecroppers in the middle of the Great Depression, his answer to this question about his literary influences is deeply relevant to the book. Years ago, when I first found this book on my parents' shelves, I skimmed through until I found this list of what the "usable past" includes. I was enchanted with his embrace of the sacred and the profane, or rather, his refusal to make that distinction:

"Christ: Blake: Dostoyevsky: Brady's photographs: everybody's letters: family albums: postcards: Whitman: Crane..."

Yesterday, while waiting at the ice rink while Rosa had her lesson, I was leafing through this month's Harvard Divinity Bulletin and came across a breath-taking essay by Kimberley Patton revisiting James Agee and Walker Evans' luminous book. This morning's Writers Almanac told me that today is the birthday of Walker Evans, and so I'm back to thinking about "Famous Men".

I admire Agee and Evans in large part because they found the assignment which sent them to Alabama with their notebooks and cameras completely impossible. They couldn't make the people the were sent to report on into social problems. In just six weeks, they developed such respect for the people they encountered that Agee found it nearly impossible to put into words what he saw within them. So instead, he describes the gleam of the floor boards in their house, the nails that hold the wood together, the simple fireplace, the sound of their conversation as they fall asleep. He notices everything, as does Evans, and the more they notice, the higher their regard for the lives they observe.

In the end, Agee makes a pretty persuasive case. When we are willing to observe--when we can keep our eyes and ears open, even when what we encounter is terrible--we will find that everything is useful, which is to say, everything is valuable. Every human life sheds some light that helps us walk through darkness. The key is to resist the temptation to make people into types, caricatures, saints.

Tomorrow, as we remember and celebrate the saints of our lives, I hope to do so in the spirit of James Agee. I want to remember that God's light shines in the small particularities of our lives, perhaps even more so than in the overarching themes of human history. I want to celebrate the humanness of the saints, which is perhaps the most hopeful thing about them.


I Believe in Halloween

I occasionally joke that Halloween is the only holiday of the year that I really, truly enjoy. That probably says more about my problems with a lot of other holidays (high expectations that are never met, the impossibility of making the magic happen at both church and home, etc.) but I do look forward to October 31st at least as much as my kids do. In a few more years, I have a feeling I'll be loving it even more than them.

Why? Over the past few years I've become more aware of the complicated feelings many Christians have about the holiday. Some are so turned off by the connection to the Rosa_the_mermaid occult that they refuse to participate entirely. Others make careful negotiations--no witches allowed, but its okay to dress as a princess. Others let their kids dive in head first, but watch it all with a great sense of unease, waiting for it to all be over.

And in response, other Christians argue that Halloween is a ritual that has become detached from any pagan or dark-spirited roots it once had. It's "just" fun, it really means nothing, so participating shouldn't be any big deal.

But I for one want to participate in Halloween, not because it means nothing, but because I really believe in the values that lie underneath it. It don't think the core values of Halloween glorify practitioners of dark magic. I believe in Halloween because:

1. I believe in walking around your neighborhood, knocking on doors and chatting with your neighbors. I don't do this nearly enough, and I love the fact that on one night of the year, it's not only okay, it's expected. I love the idea that behind each door there is a neighbor waiting for me and my kids with a treat. Okay, so this year, some of my neighbors on Good Lion Road, Columbia (I will resist the urge to list house numbers) weren't exactly prepared for us, but at least most of them opened the door and chatted and admired the kids' costumes. Having interacted once makes it so much easier to say hi again the next time we meet, and before you know it, we're building community.

2. I believe in talking to kids. I know that kids aren't supposed to talk to strangers--just like every other parent I know, I've drilled that one into my kids' heads. But on Halloween, with me and Dan standing nearby, my kids talk to every stranger they meet. And the strangers talk to them--admiring their creativity or bravery, cracking jokes, expressing concern about their safety and their diet. Before you know it, these people aren't exactly strangers anymore. Before you know it, they are people who my kids are allowed to talk to, encouraged to talk to. And that's just on Halloween night itself. I've noticed that a lot of adults use Halloween as a conversation starter for a good month before the event. "Are you going out for Halloween this year? What are you going to dress up as?" That's good small talk. And most adults I know have at least one story from their own experience of Halloween that kids would really get a kick out of hearing.

3. I believe in facing what scares you. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise that life is about more than the avoidance of pain or discomfort, and that at the other side of our greatest fears is God's greatest promise. That may sound like a bit more meaning than dressing up as a zombie deserves, but I think there is a relationship between that promise and the rituals of Halloween. My kids are--even at their advanced age--still a bit scared of ghouls and ghosts and aliens. So why not take on that persona for a night and laugh at it? Why not walk around in a group and delight in seeing a vampire on your own street? I can hardly think of a better way to confront a fear. Halloween, in this regard, is really good practice for life.

What am I missing? Are there other reasons YOU love Halloween?