All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

New camera

I’ve been saving up for some time now for a new camera. My Pentax K10D was in need of repair with a price-tag of $300+. For that price, I may as well work towards a newer camera. To that end, I recently purchased a Pentax K-3, their newest(ish) top-of-their line DSLR. My iPhone 6 has been a wonderful companion and I have taken some great photographs with it, but it became clear that it just couldn’t quite do all that I wanted a camera to do. For example, low-light pictures were grainy, and often even otherwise sharp and well-lit photographs still seemed “flat.” Plus I had a bunch of good lenses sitting around.

But enough apologetics. Last night I finally found some time to play with the camera a bit. I’m very pleased with the results. The camera does seem to have a back-focus issue (camera focuses beyond the point it tells me it’s focussed on), which is what needed repair on my K10D, but these newer models have manual auto-focus fine-tuning built right in. So I can solve the focus issues… I just need to decide if I should nevertheless send it in while it’s still on warranty.

Anyway, after fixing the focus issues, I took some black and white shots of our cats. I’m quite pleased with the results. Pictures taken with a 50mm lens at either f1.4 or f2.0, all of them at ISO6400 (except the last, which was ISO3200). Some of them are a little darker than I’d like, but these are all unedited, other than for size (and for the camera’s own processing to b&w jpegs).

I promise I won’t turn this into a blog of cat pictures.

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2015: the year in my entertainment (and travel)

Watching

None of the films I saw this year stand out. Over the years I’ve become less and less interested in going to the theatre to watch a film. I’d rather watch it at home when it comes out on DVD. But Dixie loves the movie-going experience, so I go with her from time to time. I believe every film I saw in theatres was relatively disappointing. The one exception this year, which I did not see on DVD, was Interstellar, which was mind-bendingly entertaining.

(I’m beginning to wonder if my attention span is rapidly shortening, thanks to YouTube, Facebook, etc. I just don’t have the patience for films anymore, even the ones I love.)

I did enjoy a couple British game shows this summer, though, which led to a discovery of every episodes of Q.I. (Quite Interesting) on YouTube. What a fun show! Entertainers talking about interesting but ultimately useless facts. Just my kind of show.

Listening

I entered this year listening mostly to The Head and the Heart. But in the spring I discovered, thanks to Rdio (R.I.P.), Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors and I was hooked in a way I haven’t been since I was introduced to Arcade Fire some eight years ago. And I haven’t paid attention to and learned lyrics like I have with DH&tN since high school: maybe The Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon or Counting Crows’ August & Everything After. It’s catchy and moody folk-rock that I can’t get enough of. (I wonder how long that will last? In theory I still love mid-80s—mid-90s U2 and R.E.M., but I rarely listen to them.)

Two bonuses (boni?): my entire family likes DH&tN. They’re one of the few artists who do not provoke argument when put into the car stereo. And I believe Drew and his wife are Christians. Ordinarily this wouldn’t make much of a difference to my enjoyment of the music, but thoughtful, quality folk-rock created by people of faith, that isn’t kitchy or platitude-filled Christian marketing output is hard to come by.

Reading

This is a tricky category. If I finish a book it means one of two things: I had to read it for an assignment and/or I really enjoyed it. (Or my literary guilt pushed me through). I read plenty of books this year, but here are a few that stood out:

Nick Hornby, Ten Years in the Tub — ten years of monthly columns about the books he’s been reading. Highly entertaining.

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust — the former Archbishop of Canterbury reflects on the Apostles’ Creed. Wise and deep.

Bruce Cockburn, Rumours of Glory — Cockburn’s autobiography. Insightful and interesting.

Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers — An attempt at some “mass market” reading. This is the first of the Kurt Wallander novels. I enjoyed the BBC tv series starring Kenneth Brannaugh. The book was good. The second book in the series, The Dogs of Riga, was a bit of a chore to get through. Thus ends my reading of this series.

And I would remiss if I didn’t mention Bill Bryson’s latest, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island. Bryson is always fun to read, and I heartily welcome his return to travel literature.

Travel

This year I travelled well over 40,000kms. That includes a visit to Denver (via Phoenix), Alaska (via Seattle), Knoxville (via an epic 50-hour bus ride with 40-some teenagers), and England (with the family). It was a good year for travel, but tiring, too.

 

Orthodoxy is untidy and rough around the edges

“The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners.”

(Read the rest.)

Origin of the “Bunnyhug”

Another obscure page from history (the last one being the Swedish Reckoning), which I shared with my Manitoban friends back in 2010. The origin of the “bunnyhug” (the Saskatchewan Hoodie):

Bunny populations were high back in the day, particularly in Saskatchewan, and they were adversely affecting crops. In a move similar to paying children for the tails of gophers they have killed, the government urged people to kill bunnies.
Bunny pelts,contrary to those of the praire dog, are soft and snuggly (and larger). This prompted Sasktachewan farmers, whose ingenuity and perceptiveness saw the potential in the hides, to fashion them into garments. An item of clothing quite similar to the modern bunnyhug/hoodie made out of bunny hides became quite popular in both rural areas and urban centers. The term “bunnyhug” is therefore quite natural (if grotesque) nomenclature.

Naturally, this large-scale bunny killing would eventually reduce the population to more manageable and less damaging levels, and the bunnycide came to an official end. However, the popularity of the bunnyhug did not wane, so the style of the real bunny-hide bunnyhug was adopted for more conventional fabrics, which is what we have today as the bunnyhug/hoodie.

Perhaps knowing the history of the bunnyhug in Saskatchewan (which, not unusually, is quite independent of hoodie histories across the world) will help stem the tide of anti-Saskatchewanism bigotry.

Post-election thoughts: I’m disappointed.

My disappointment is not really in who was elected. We live in a democracy and the people have spoken. Now we can live with it for the next four years or so, just as we have done for all previous elections. We still live in an amazing country and most of us, when we boil it down, have little to complain about. I’m confident that it will stay that way. Sure, we may not like some of the changes that come our way, but do we need to fear? No. And yet that’s exactly what I see and hear.

I’ve been shocked with some of the stuff I’ve seen and heard in the course of this election campaign, both before and after the election. If there’s anything that brings fear to my heart (even though we shouldn’t fear!), it’s what I saw on social media during this election (yes, this is mostly about Facebook).

Two things in particular concern me. They have to do with the possibility civil dialogue and theological grounding.

1. Civil dialogue. I’m worried that we are losing (or have lost) our ability to have civil dialogue. Dialogue requires not just listening but also the effort to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. It seems to me we did very little of either listening or empathizing during this election, at least if Facebook is any indication (it might be that it isn’t, but I doubt it).

When we engage in civil dialogue, we will discover that the “other” is rather a lot like we are, with similar foundational goals and fears and perceptions and weaknesses as we have, even if on the “issues” we disagree. And when we discover this, we discover that we are dealing with fellow human beings. With neighbours.

Instead, what I saw was a lot of plugged ears while screaming out personal points of view mixed with prejudice, mockery, and hatred.

2. Theological grounding. What didn’t come across my Facebook feed was anything that remotely suggested that what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ has any bearing on what we think are important election policies. (And I don’t think that the only faith-based issues are abortion—which none of the major parties are interested in addressing—or marriage.

Based on my feed the election was all about the economy, taxes,  and what is best for me personally, irrespective of my neighbours’ needs. (And also half-truths and lies about the politicians we didn’t like).

But where did Jesus’ teachings come into play? Where did God’s heart and character (love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness) come into play, not only in policy but in the conversation?

Christians are called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I feel like politics has a knack for turning all of those things off, not least the God-loving mind.

A Walk in the Woods: a (terribly written) review

On a whim, Dixie and I decided to go and see A Walk in the Woods in the theatre yesterday. It’s based on Bill Bryson’s book about his hike through (much of) the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. I am huge fan of the book, which was what got me hooked on Bryson, who is one of my favourite authors (new book coming out in October, YAAAAY!). I knew from the trailer that significant elements of the book were changed for the purposes of the movie, so my hopes weren’t high.

Below are some brief thoughts on the film. But before I do that, I feel that I should mention that Dixie, who has not read the book, as I have (several times), enjoyed the film.

– The book is a travelogue, a sort of section by section account of Bryson’s journey through a large portion of the Appalachian Trail. The film is more of a memoir/”spiritual journey” story, which isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the book, but then I’m not sure any adaption of the book could have been true to its spirit. But in order to make it what it is, the characters were made more advanced in age than Bryson was when he hikes the trail. Bryson was, I think, in his early forties when he did the hike, the character in the film of (at least) retirement age; Bryson was approaching the peak of his fame and powers as an author when he wrote A Walk in the Woods; in the film his character is at the end of his career.

– The biggest disappointment for me was that the film felt empty. That is, nearly every page in A Walk in the Woods has fascinating anecdotes and tidbits of information, sarcastic quips, and hilarious incidents (and often a combination of all of those things at once). The film was light in all those areas. The difficulty for any adaptation of an author whose primary appeal is his way with words is that what works in print often doesn’t work in film. Humour written for the page is not the same as humour written for the screen. (It’s the same with P.G. Wodehouse. As good as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were as Jeeves and Wooster, the TV adaptations couldn’t touch Wodehouse’s written page. And in my mind Bryson, particularly in his earlier work, is a sort of modern-day nonfiction Wodehouse.)

– The film was too light (which is probably related to its emptiness). I wasn’t drawn in. It showed potential at the very beginning, and even greater potential with the arrival of Kristen Schaal’s naively overconfident character. True to the book, they ditch her after a day or so, but if memory serves me right, in the book she shows up again. She doesn’t reappear in the film and she was gone far too quickly. Even if she didn’t reappear in the book, they would have done well by having her reappear in the film (since they were mucking about with the story anyway).

– The character of Stephen Katz was true to the book.

I realize that this has turned into a “the-film-wasn’t-like-the-book-so-it-sucked” sort of review, and for that I apologize. A film should be judged on its own merits, not on how well it represents the book on which it’s based (though if that really is true, I wish they’d stop putting “based upon…” in film advertising). Unfortunately, I can’t separate the two, so perhaps you should just go with Dixie’s judgement on this one. I do think the film was “light”: a story that doesn’t really go anywhere or land.

England-related thoughts and musings [edited/updated]

One of my favourite things about England is all the footpaths. They’re everywhere: in the countryside, in the middle of cities (there are 120,000 miles of them, according to Bill Bryson). I love walking and the idea of stepping out of my door and within a few blocks being able to find footpaths that would take me through field and forest is wonderful. I realize I live in the countryside here, but walking is limited mostly to the gravel roads, unless I want to drive to a park in a city somewhere. Gravel roads aren’t nearly as nice as footpaths and trails. I envy the British their footpaths. There were a couple of occasions I desperately—well, that’s perhaps too strong a word—wanted to wander down a wooded path, but instead had to be driven somewhere else.

* * *

British television is far superior to North American television (speaking in general and subjective terms, of course). I’m thinking of the BBC programs that I have binge-watched on Netflix: Sherlock, Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Wallander, Doc Martin, and The Bletchley Circle. All of them seem much more interested in character and plot and mood than flash and style. Granted, we haven’t had regular television in six or more years, but every time we visit my in-laws or stay in a hotel I realize how right Bruce Springsteen is: “57 chanels (and nothin’ on)”. Perhaps the same is true in England and it’s just that I’ve managed to have all the crap filtered out first. And I guess we have MythbustersMantracker, Jeopardy, Sienfeld (reruns) and—my current favourite, though it’s not actually on television as such—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In England we watched a couple of fun game-shows with my aunt and uncle: Pointless and Two Tribes, both of which were fun and informative, neither of which would likely make it in North America (not least, I suspect, because prizes won’t exceed a couple of thousand dollars). And since coming home, I’ve discovered QI (“Quite Interesting”), a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. The idea of the program is to talk about interesting and obscure things, points awarded for interesting things said (even if completely off topic), points deducted for boring or obvious answers. It’s basically a show about everything and nothing at the same time, filled with English accents and idiom. I love it!

* * *

Tea!

So much of it! So inexpensive! So tasty!

I purchased 2 pounds of my favourite tea (Yorkshire Gold), a box of 240 P.G. Tips tea bags, and another box of 80 Yorkshire Tea bags (because it came in a fun caddy). All of it for a fraction of the cost of buying the same stuff in Canada! No matter that I already had 3 pounds of my favourite tea sitting in our cold room at home!

* * *

I was surprised by all the litter, particularly in London, but in other areas as well. I saw people throw garbage over their shoulders at the train station and down subway stairwells in London, and many more just leaving their trash wherever they were sitting. It’s not entirely the people’s fault, though: London seems to be almost completely devoid of garbage cans (or, rather, “rubbish bins”). I think this surprised me because in my mind’s eye all of western Europe is almost spotlessly clean, though I couldn’t tell you where this idea comes from.

* * *

About three-quarters of the way through our trip I thought I might have gotten over my Anglophilia, but that was short-lived. It’s back full-force: tea and accents and British television and streets and houses. All of it.

My favourite thing right now is the British tendency to turn statements of fact into questions by adding an “…isn’t it?” or a “…weren’t they?” or the like to a sentence. It somehow makes conversation much more interesting and inclusive. Delightful! I wish I was British! Alas, it isn’t nearly as delightful with a Canadian accent, is it?

I’ve been watching a lot of QI in the last couple of weeks. Maybe the panelists aren’t representative of British English as a whole, but it seems like it’s not just turning statements into questions. There seems to be a tendency to add extra words at the end of a sentence which North Americans tend not to do. For example, “What’s the correct answer, then?”, where—I think—would be more likely to ask the same question by emphasizing the word “correct”: “What’s the correct answer?” Another example: “I like it very much, indeed,” where a Canadian would likely say it without the “indeed.” I don’t know what it is about this that I like so much.

* * *

In Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson complains that every British town centre looks identical, because they all have a Boots, a Marks & Spencer, and a WHSmith. It’s interesting how familiarity really does breed contempt. The stores Bryson mentions are the equivalent of Canada’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Safeway, and…well, I don’t think we have the equivalent of WHSmith (a stationer/newsagent) anymore, thanks to Staples. And yet I liked seeing these stores. They were unfamiliar and therefore, in a way, unique, a novelty.

But, given that it’s the equivalent of our Superstore, I can’t imagine what some of our fellow passengers on the train to London thought if they overheard me telling Dixie, tapping on the window with no small amount of excitement, “Hey, look! A Tesco’s!” (I can’t imagine what I’d think if a visitor from overseas exclaimed, “Hey look! A Walmart!”)

Silence is not just not talking

One of the pleasures of browsing books and desultory reading is coming across little gems that you hadn’t anticipated. For one reason or another, Dixie had pulled Nurturing Silence in a Noisy Heart, a a little book by Wayne E. Oates published in the late 1970s, off the shelf. I had bought it on a whim years ago at library book sale.

The book was laying on our bed last night, so I picked it up and started reading and was hooked pretty quickly. Here’s a bit on silence as not simply the absence of noise (quoting Thomas Merton in the first paragraph):

Silence is a part of the rule of obedience which [Trappist monks] follow. This does not mean, however, that the “monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He must distinguish what is useless and harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God…”

He uses the word “distinguish.” What does that mean about silence? Wrapped up in “distinguish” is the basic principle of nurturing silence in a noisy heart. It means to “chose between” or to “choose from among” the many sounds—noises, tones, words—what is useful in creating within us a clean heart and right spirit. We put to the test all that we are about so say or not say; we are constantly choosing to listen, and choosing what we will need to listen to. We develop, under the tutelage of the Spirit of God, the power to discern and make choices in the feeding, nurturing, and growing of our personal realm of silence. Jesus suggests a kind of prayer that is not know for its “much speaking.” He taught simplicity of utterance. Your “yes” is to be “yes” and your “no” is to be “no.” Silence, then, is not just not talking. Silence is a discipline of choosing what to say and to what to listen. Nurturing silence, then, is the growth of the power of discernment as to what will be the focus of your attention, care, and commitment. (9)

Well, that’s pretty profound, I thought to myself as I closed the book, grabbed my smartphone, and started watching Letterman clips on YouTube. Perhaps not profound enough, I guess.

These are words I need to heed. I have a lot of alone time, relatively speaking, but I don’t have a lot of silence, because I tend to fill my alone time with the noise of the internet. My excuse is that true silence is boring, but the reality is probably that silence is scary. In silence we begin to think about things we otherwise wouldn’t. We begin to realize things about ourselves that we’d rather ignore. God is given room to speak, when it would be much more comfortable to push his voice away with YouTube, Buzzfeed, Facebook, movies, work, etc.

Of course, none of these things aren bad in and of themselves, and sometimes it’s okay to just “escape,” but the danger is that we (I) simply start filling every space with this stuff, so that every waking moment is filled with noise of one kind or another. Smartphones with large data plans don’t help.

We need silence to quiet our hearts, to restore us, “reset” us from the noise, the outside voices, the cacophony of our world, so that we can hear God again, so that we can know who we are again.

 

Why I don’t read science fiction.

Early on in his column about the books he reads every month (in Ten Years in the Tub), Nick Hornby decided that he would read something he would ordinarily never read. He chose something in the science fiction genre. He would quickly realize his mistake. One of the books he chose to read was one by Iain M. Banks called Excession. Hornby had this to say about the experience:

…nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any waybad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book…

…The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue…By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. (148)

This was hilarious, because this has been my own experience with science fiction as well. I liked The Chrysalids in high school. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed  in university for a utopian literature class (though it was an example of the opposite) and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Ender’s Game. I managed to read little more than a chapter or two of Dune, which, from what I can tell, is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Buy my sci-fi reading ended there and the reason is exactly like what Hornby says of the science fiction he tried to read: I don’t understand it.

I’ve had a copy of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a decade or more. I enjoyed The Dispossessed enough to think about reading more LeGuin. (Plus I think Bruce Cockburn may have mentioned it as an influence on some song or other of his.) But every time I open it up to give it a go, I am stopped by this, the beginning of chapter 1:

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-9342-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

How am I supposed to read beyond that? Is there an explanatory prequel I’m unaware of which I should read first? Is this any way to start a novel? Tolkien is filled with names and history we know nothing about, but at least he does us the courtesy of starting The Lord of the Rings with a prologue about some creatures we can at least identify with.

And what’s with the numbers? As Hornby’s experience shows, this seems to be normal sci-fi stuff. Are we to believe that these numbers are not just random sequences meant to look futurey and sciencey—that they actually mean something? Because I don’t buy it.

I assume that all will be explained as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I’m interested.