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Rockwell’s Children

12/06/2010

Are you tired of the Christmas music yet? Maybe you’re not a fan to begin with. I’ll sheepishly admit that I am; it’s a sound so heavy with memories that, once imbibed, I’m always surprised I’m not dragged back to the white winters of my childhood in Austria. Those were exceptionally beautiful winters, you see, the stars greedily crowding the sky, the snow sugared across the lanes, and settling on your shoulders as though you were nothing more than a frosted pastry. The gray silk of smoke rising spectrally from chimney after chimney, and your breathing sharp with the cold, and the intoxicating fragrance of smoke and pine. Exhale and your breath flits before your eyes as though you were briefly giving your spirit a glimpse of the expectant world surrounding you.

The roads are hectic, our radios hoarse, retail clerks wish they’d joined a monastic order. Our bank statements are alarming, our calendars, cages, our houses, toyshops. Driving through the neighborhoods, it’s hard not to find the occasional home, handsomely attired in the season’s best, looking an awful lot like a toy itself. If you look through the windows at the tree growing mysteriously in the living room, at the lights, at the ornaments hanging in a tantalizing canopy about the limbs, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see people enacting the things that Norman Rockwell used to paint (things I’m often tempted to mock). But Rockwell’s children are still there, laughing and smiling as they sip from their steaming mugs, stoke their fires, argue about in-laws, heating bills and occasionally take the pulse of a Mr. Teddy to indulge a young girl with a sick and inanimate friend.

These weeks preceding Christmas serve as a forceful reminder of how cynical and cold-hearted I can be. I’m so tempted to see nothing but roads filled with homicidal shoppers, shopping malls filled with thronging masses that would incense the fire department, gaudy, handless pick-pockets bellowing from the radio, and television for me to throw my cash like confetti. But I look at those houses, those shining lights, those crowding, clamoring stars. I smell the smoke and pine. Those houses are expecting someone. Those people armed with their mugs, remote controls and checkbooks are expecting someone. I’m expecting someone. The stars themselves are expecting someone. The whole world is waiting and expecting someone. Listen to the music. But most of all, listen to the carols. You know, the ones so weighted with glory and memories as mysterious as distant relatives who stare like statues from faded frames. The songs so heavy they pull you back to the company of stargazing shepherds who got more than they bargained for, and then still further, all the way back to a manger that rocked the rock of ages.

A Handful of Coins

11/29/2010

Writing is fickle. Sometimes, it comes so easily that I’m reminded of the old adage about authors finding their characters rather than inventing them. It can seem nothing more than blowing dust off an old book, the neat columns of paragraphs elegantly supporting your thoughts. You almost can’t take credit for this kind of writing because it was just there all along, waiting to be found. But then there are the times when your head becomes a cage and your thoughts will not find their way out. They dissolve before they’ve found their way to the page, like snow melting before it hits the ground. You can run through fields, you can run your fingers through your hair, but you can’t seem to stop your words from running through your fingers.

It’s been called “writer’s block,” which sounds like some kind of scientific model, or molecule describing the atomic principles of a given author: Just as DNA is the building block of life, the written word is the writer’s block. The only word that truly does the symptom justice is despair. It’s a despair so deep that it rarely finds expression. How could it? This despair arose because of a lack of expression in the first place. Because it can’t adequately give voice to its complaints, this despair grows perpetually, and the greater it becomes, the less likely it will ever be spoken and thus subdued. I imagine it something like an intricate toy with a precise slot through which a particular object with a particular shape can fit, say a star, a circle, or a tree. But nothing but that star will do, when it comes to the star-shaped slot, and this, I think, is what we call writer’s block; a symptom characterized by a chronic inability to pair a thought with a collection of adequate wording.

There are times when talking to God feels like this. I keep searching for the proper phrasing, an adequate group of words, a soundbite, something I heard a pastor say in a prayer, anything, until I’m left pulling my hair and cursing. I want nothing more than to drop the formality, to simply breath my sorrows, hopes and dreams to Him. But I find myself oddly stifled. I feel like I’ve used up all my songs, words and curses. All of them feel as used and worn as the coins that litter my pockets, and freckle public floors. I fear that I can’t give what’s dead or expired to a God who could invent a new word at the drop of a hat, sing a song to end all songs, and share a hope that would tear all life from my lungs.

I would do well to remember that God is not looking for me to impress Him. He’s not my audience, He’s my eternal Father. Though my words are nothing more than copper coins, they are all I have to give, and as most of us were reminded this past Thursday, sometimes there’s no greater blessing than to be told, “Thank you.”

Kettle, Chair and Fire

11/22/2010

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s charming initiation into the Lord of the Rings saga has two recurring sentences of which I’m very fond: “He was thinking once again of his favorite chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!” That concluding sentence adds a haunting resonance to the cozy safety of the former. The kettle’s whistling siren-song echoes down the hallway of Bilbo’s frenzied mind throughout many a dark passage and encounter. Bilbo thinks of his beloved hobbit-hole and his steaming kettle while he’s in the fists of trolls, and waylaid in the caves of goblins (holes nothing like his hobbit-hole which always “means comfort”). Not even a dragon can silence the promise of a warm cup of tea before a softly snapping fire.

No doubt, there are nobler characters with whom I wish I could identify. Men of such courage and valor that sculptors feel compelled to torture their forms out of rocks, and poets to wrack their brains until they themselves become little more than feeble scribes in their efforts to immortalize these men whose deeds remain with us long after their spirits have departed. Such men have loudly made their mark, and we’ll see their statues and chant their victories and defeats for many years to come.

Nevertheless, if I were given a sword and a shield and marched into battle, I’d be thinking of singing kettles (in my case, purring coffeepots). In blood-spattered, leaden attire, I’d be dreaming of the comforts of home, a good book and a chair by the fire. This hope is Bilbo’s lifeline, the torch that lights his furry, faltering steps through the most dismal of dungeons. It’s the promise behind every adventure, the echo behind every familiar artifact and the ghost of all your wandering dreams: home. The journey may stretch luxuriously across the most exotic of maps, but in the end, none of it can compete with the place you call your home, with your kettle, your chair, and your fire.

And yet go we must. Home cannot precede the journey, it can only follow. If it doesn’t, it’s not your home, just a temporary sanctuary. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it (Matt 16:24-25).” Unfortunately for me and Bilbo, that means doing without the kettle, the chair, and the fire for quite some time. It means traversing austere landscapes, weathering brutal storms, crawling through callous caverns with nothing but a small glimmer lighting our hearts like lanterns. We do this for Christ, we do this for the sake of our neighbors struggling beside us, we do this for ourselves, we do this for the home, waiting patiently at journey’s end, where I’m certain, I’ll find among other things, a kettle, a chair, a fire, my eternal Father.

Why Worry?

11/15/2010

You’re always more than your circumstances. When it seems that events conspire against you, when every door makes like a wall, certainly you find yourself discouraged. But there’s always a portion of you that remains undiminished, a lone spark, a lantern in a cavern, assuring you that the world won’t stop, that it will keep moving, and that it will move you with it. What you must remember is that circumstances–jobs, bills, funerals, loans etc.–accrue like a train towing a massive string of boxcars. But you’re not the train, you’re the tracks.

Like any book, like any symphony, like any life for that matter, your life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. God alone knows all three and often keeps a good portion of what He knows to Himself. You, of course, carry on as all of us must carry on, doing the best you can, but, for the most part, winging it. After all, none of us have done this before, lived a life. Few of us pause to take in what alarming amateurs we all are. We’ve no past lives upon which to draw for detailed experiential instruction. We can, of course, consult with the imposing black columns, running like the bars of a cell across our history books. We can look to ashen photographs of people whose blood we’re still carrying, but who seem strangely bloodless in the lifeless stills. To carry on in this manner, faith is paramount.

Remember this: a train, as powerful, controlled and imposing as it may be, cannot run apart from its tracks, and you are the tracks, not the train. The train, despite its muscle and size, is actually at your mercy. It can no more determine the course of the tracks than it can ascend into the heavens like some crazed locomotive rocket. Life’s circumstances are at the mercy of the course of your life, and the course of your life is at the mercy of God. I know this is not always reassuring, but what fills me with hope, what fills me with happiness and anticipation, is the fact that my life, that your life, that all of our lives have a destination, that God has a plan for all of us, and that every day, despite the scars mapping my journey, I’m drawing closer to it, closer to home.

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for you life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; not for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap; nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are yo not worth much more than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? (Matt 6: 25-27)”

The Weight of Butterfly Wings

11/08/2010

James Thurber reminds us of what our glasses steal from us: “For the hawk-eyed person life has none of those soft edges which for me blur into fantasy; for such a person an electric welder is merely an electric welder, not a radiant fool setting off a skyrocket by day. The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz, a little like Wonderland, a little like Poictesme. Anything you can think of, and a lot you never would think of, can happen there.” One thing that is less likely to happen there, however, is for you to take what you see for granted. It’s difficult to do, you see, when the world’s colors run together like wet paint, and you’re left wondering whether air has turned to water.

The world is endlessly strange and endlessly giving. This afternoon, I went for a walk in the park with my father. My damp shadow stretched luxuriously before me like a roughly Cameron-shaped slot, tempting me to tilt blithely forward and fall into its delightfully form-fitting shape. The trees burned insistently as ever, occasionally sending their burning leaves into the sky much like Thurber’s radiant fool with a skyrocket. Distant crows drifted like cinders across the cobalt sky, while those that were closer gazed sternly at dad and me from the towering shelf of a telephone wire, lined up like a collection of bookends. The more I look, the richer I feel, empty of pocket, but weighed down with wealth nonetheless.

Vladimir Nabokov, certainly my favorite writer, has taught me that all of this matters intensely. A passionate lepidopterist who studied the intricacies and ornate striations of a butterfly’s wings as urgently and precisely as a devoted patron of the arts studies the Sistine Chapel’s ceilings and antiquity’s faded frescos, he never tired of proclaiming that detail is everything. Truth is in the details. Shrewdly, he also knew that details–even the most vivid–are elusive because we crave the commonplace, the “negligible generality,” the convenient pair of spectacles. That’s why we need to remove our glasses occasionally and see the world drift and expand before our failing eyes and watch the smoke from stacks rise into the heavens like some vertical extension of the highway.

In short, Nabokov extols the weight of a butterfly’s wings. He merely reiterates what God emphatically declared when physical shape had been given to His wishes: “It is good.” Indeed it is. And when a butterfly flaps its stained glass wings before me, I feel those wings weigh down my heart, and they pull me down as forcefully as an anchor, out of the clouds, away from the commonplace, the “negligible generality,” the familiar, the well-worn, the label, my polished glasses, and back to what John Calvin lovingly called, “God’s theater.”

Eternal Lines

11/01/2010

Look outside: autumn’s fiery upholstery is covering everything from the trees to your gutters and cars. Trembling leaves cascade like exotic rain, their muted yellow is a faded photograph of the now-departed summer sunshine. The sky is the blue of old movies, the blue in which an invisible hand spells out the phrase “The End” in an elaborate cloud-white cursive.

Fall’s beauty is undeniable, but there’s also something somber about it all. We know it marks summer’s departure. We know that soon the landscape will look like a stage full of unpainted and empty set-pieces. The trees will stand stark naked, their limbs drawing childish scribbles and doodles across the austere sky. Frost and snow will turn the world the color of ash and soot. Only spring can save them now…

If you haven’t guessed, autumn is, without a doubt, my favorite of the seasons. It is in turns majestic, tragic and mysterious. In the midst of its decay, the world shrieks at the grave with its inflamed beauty, like a condemned poet who feels compelled to concede one final masterpiece before imitating the dust as we all must do. I read the leaves and trees like poems. I think of Shakespeare’s fittingly immortal words from Sonnet 18: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st./Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st./So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Autumn, in her gorgeous infirmity, is also composing “eternal lines.” Lines of hope, lines of life, lines we all must live by because we can’t believe that winter is eternal.

Jesus lived His mysterious, majestic and tragic life between a manger and a cross. The shadow of that cross harnessed Him to a vile fate in which we all have taken part. But in the midst of His dying, He gave us “eternal lines” of His own. He told us that whoever comes to Him will not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). He told us that death is not the end. He told us that He is returning to “make all things new. (Rev 21:5)” In so many words, He said that autumn’s beautiful protest against winter is both noble and true, that Shakespeare is right, that these are indeed “eternal lines” and that their promise will one day be fulfilled, that we shall have life in scandalous abundance, and that the poets shall become prophets.

The World Belongs on your Shoulders

10/24/2010

Strictly speaking, the world won’t stand on its own. You should know, you’re carrying it. Some carry the strain visibly, others conceal it beneath a colorful banner of indifference. Behind closed doors their bones must be cracking. Who you are is irrelevant because the world’s always heavy and you’ll carry it until the day it carries you. Remember that.

God asks that we carry the world despite the fact that He’s made it much too heavy for us. Far from being cruel, this seems to me a rather ingenious ploy to drive us into one another’s arms. Even the small plot of God’s green earth to which you’re yoked takes on the weight of the ocean in certain moments, days, years. A breakup. A death in the family. A lonely birthday. A beloved family pet’s demise. Just when you think your shoulders are being crushed, someone happens by to take up a portion of the Planet’s murderous weight. Sorrow can’t depart without another set of shoulders.

The Psalmist writes: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, the God who is our Salvation.” In other words, you have no idea just how little you’re carrying. What feels heavy to you now is a mere fraction of the entire festering wound that is this world that God the Father allowed to fall upon His Son’s head. The weight crushed Him and the briefly defeated heap He became pleased His Father who knew that He would get up again as we could not were we in His place. A great weight was rolled from our shoulders when the stone was rolled from Christ’s tomb.

Though there are many moments when you feel the world is crushing you, has broken through your flesh and begun to crack your spirit, remember that you’re not the only one holding it up. Remember that I’m carrying it too. Remember that your friends are holding it up. Remember your enemies who are also lightening your load. Most of all, remember Christ upon whose strong shoulders the entire world rests. Remember you’re not lifting it alone. How else would you stand up?