On Rubber Bands and Rejoicing, Dark Though It Is

Rubber BandsSo the rubber band that you wear to make you stop speaking useless words? – I can’t keep it on the same wrist for half an hour. I always wondered about that – why it’s so easy to tear things down and so much harder to stack them up. Why are the grim words the ones that draw laughter and why do we flock about the funny instead of crowding in around the kind? Why does mutual irritation bring strangers together when we all know it’s this very bitterness that’s bound to take us apart?

With all the other poor choices I and my kind make, I guess it’s no surprise that we keep getting this thing dead wrong too. But when we come down to it, the creed we hold to isn’t ambiguous or muddied enough to let us make up our own minds. Do everything without complaining and without arguing, it says.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried for the twenty-one days. There’s this idea that words don’t only spill what’s inside but shape it as well – and someone who started thinking about this decided they had better start shaping up their talk. Because to be honest, on a given day a whole lot of us sound something like this:

Oh, me too. And someone who didn’t want to be a fountain of whining said something had to change. (We say it too. Again I will say it: rejoice.) So he put a rubber band on a wrist and every time he caught himself complaining moved it to the other. I moved mine ten times on my road trip Tuesday, driving home to celebrate the dawning of the happiest portion of the year. The goal is to bring that interval up to twenty-one days. Yeah.

I can’t deny that people can be cruel in a pinch or even on the other side of all your kindness. Yes, the highways are clogged with folks who shouldn’t be allowed off of their own driveways. And yes, the times are nightfall and the world riven right through. But don’t we believe that the Sunrise from on high has come to visit us? Don’t we believe in the sky split wide open with light and chorale?

Or do we? Because if we do, won’t it change things? And won’t it make wild sense to talk about this more than we talk about the sorry insufficiency of what’s around? I’m just asking because I wonder. And I guess I’m not the only one.

Three thousand years back in our history, our greatest songwriter said let the redeemed say so, talk about it. We still sing it. Because if everything else falls away, we still have this. And in the bleak world that Immanuel inhabits, can’t we be saying thank you and waving, dark though it is?
Boys-WavingDarkThoughItIs - Copy

THANKS (by W.S. Merwin)

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

What If We Are Alone? [A Marsh-Wiggle Speaks]

Orphaned2Our lives are staked on such simple things, aren’t they? Because it isn’t only true that no man is an island, it’s vastly more true that no belief is marooned, that ideas have consequences, and that every accepted truth claim moves in with its entire family. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” rather quickly turns into, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and before we know it, the ball’s in our court.

But when you give every last thing, you want it to be worth it, don’t you? And sometimes, to be utterly honest, we’re not quite sure.

At the back of our minds, is there sometimes this lingering gnawing, the dark suggestion that what we see is all there is? It isn’t that we have strong reasons for disbelief, or that we’re out of evidence for what we do believe, but only that we’ve come to love it so very much – to depend on it and live and move and have our being in it – that even a mustard-seed of uncertainty is unbearable.

LonelyPlanetK.S. Rhoads puts words to this frightful sadness in Orphaned,

you’re born into a union
but you die on your own

a bear on the iceberg
is burning in the sun

what if I go behind the curtain
and see no one?

When I was a child, I asked these questions. Sometimes I opened my mind to the possibility of the void, of everything glad becoming untrue, of life going out like a candle, and all things being of no account. How do you explain the dark aloneness of dust?
Emerald City
When I was eight years old, I read The Wizard of Oz. I read chapter after chapter without pause, and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t find the self-control to put it away and save something to read later. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, I lay awake and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

It’s the ghastliest question of all:

Are we orphaned?

But when I was a child, I didn’t know about amor tan inmenso. I didn’t know there was a love so mighty that the idea of it was better than the substance of anything else; so colossal that we would sooner die for that fantasy than live for the bleak reality of anything else.

Now I don’t ask that question anymore. It isn’t that I’ve outgrown doubt, or moved past anguish or this diseased vision of mine, but in a way I’ve come to happy terms with even the uncertainty that slips in sometimes when I’m not looking. I’ve made my peace with it.

SilverChairThis peace has come all by itself – just slipped quietly in as the years rolled on – but the echo of it exists in many places, leaving me to know I’m not alone in what I have decided. Maybe my favorite of these is found in The Silver Chair.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, remember: Eustace and Jill and the pessimistic Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum are trying to free Prince Rilian from the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, a witch who is keeping him an enchanted prisoner in the Underworld. In the climactic scene, the witch begins to lose ground as the children and the Marsh-Wiggle recognize the Prince and break his enchantment. In desperation, she resorts to sorcery and begins to work magic on the whole party, to talk them out of their belief in the world outside her caverns.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes, there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

PuddleglumThe answer is straightforward enough, incontrovertible. But the witch laughs, and laughter is a better weapon than words of reason. She goes on laughing, and bewitching, and before you know it, the whole party hardly even believes in their own homeland anymore. There is something they remember, though. They cling to it frantically: the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And up in the midday sky when they couldn’t look at him for brightness.

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?” asked the Witch.

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?”

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together, “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

“There never was a sun,” said the Witch.

“No. There never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children.

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said: “There’s Aslan.”

Aslan_SunBut the witch claims no understanding of this word, she doesn’t know what a lion is. How can they explain it? It’s like a cat, only it’s not, it’s bigger and grander with a mane like a judge’s wig.

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”

At this point, it’s practically over, the enchantment is nearly complete and Rilian and Eustace and Jill are abashed and quiet. They have given up at last. Puddleglum though, is not quite spent, and with the last of his strength he strikes out and stamps out the witch’s mystic green fire with his two bare feet.

And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

narniaThen Puddleglum speaks, and his speech is at one time defiant, trusting and deeply wonderful, because circumstances have forced him to look that frightful question squarely in the face, and it doesn’t scare him away, and he gives it an answer.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If in some unforeseeable future, everything should crumble and prove to be a lie, and we be left with the mere idea of the Immortal, Invisible Only-Wise, I think I’d be happier serving the thought of that, than the being of any other. Wouldn’t you? Better to be swallowed up in a good story, I say, than choked to death by a bitter actuality. It’s better to go down fighting for theIvanMoiseyev kingdom of heaven if it is a shadow-kingdom, then to rise up ruling in any other. Because if the legend of the God-With-Us is only mythology after all, it’s the best thing to come out of this doubly-wretched world.

And if you give every last thing for the very best thing, it’s worth it. Even if we are alone.

In me there’s this nagging feeling that us feeling like this is strong evidence against our aloneness, that if the story transcends even its own negation, that’s one point for the crowd that says it’s a true story. And when I think about that crowd, I hardly know how to disagree with them.


My Song Is Love Unknown

War Kid - littleThere is this thing about children. The way they taught me half the things I know about God.

They come into the world with red faces and crinkly foreheads, stubborn as weather and as changeable. We know when we take them home and settle them into safe places that they will keep us wakeful and jeopardize our peace for many turnings of the world. We keep doing it, though.

From the start, they are like the gamin, like the fleet-footed, autonomous, defensive little toughs in the tough parts of the world. There is this sense in which every baby is a Dallas Winston with winsome, unapproachable eyes and a practiced carelessness and a code of shameless opportunism and a disgusting swagger. They can do everything all by themselves. Even plunked right into the middle of all our encircling provision, they are grasping and greedy and violent.

There is this sense in which every baby is hardened like a street tough before his feet are steady enough to take him careening through alleys, before the cruel world has touched so much as the fuzzy curls on his head. He is his own man, and he looks out for himself. You can hear it in his wild, demanding shrieks – when he wakes and is hungry – and feel it in the determination of his tight-clenched fists – when you move to take something from him that he thinks he ought to have.

We love them, though. Oh, how we love them!

Sometimes we tame them and humble them and constrain them and clear a way before them for the truth to come through like dayspring. We do this when we can. It is one of the world’s greatest joys. Like that of the inloveness that a man shares with a woman. Or like the harvesting of the fruit of many years’ work and of calloused hands.

But sometimes we come upon children who are untamed and still fierce and self-reliant and deceitful, and we love them no less. There is just this thing about children. By now the baby is older and shrewder and more capable and no longer kept prisoner by our blankets and cradles and the weakness of his legs. He begins to venture further and to find trouble for himself, as the sparks fly upward.

We know about trouble, about the sparks. We know what is at the end of all of the roads. We want to shield him, to make him strong for what is to come. We want to tell him what has been and what will be. We want to wrap our arms around all the beauty of his being and impart grace to him. There are no words for the love we have for him. It is overpowering. It is like the ocean or the hurricane of stars raging over us. We do not work for it. We just have it.

But his ways are so furtive and his eyes so distrustful – and he lies to us. Does he know how we read his darting eyes like a book, watch him frame his piteous deceptions, all the while willing him to throw off that sad mask, all the while knowing he won’t?  And do we love him less for his lies, for his crooked heart, for his confounded egotism?

No, we don’t, of course.  Sometimes, in fact, we love him more. There is a heartbreak, a grief, a sweet, strong sympathy that injects itself into our love for him and makes it a thing of urgency, a great epic. We don’t love children because they deserve it.

That is the thing about children. We love them just because. We love them first. We hope they will love us back someday; but if they don’t, we will go on loving them all the same.

That is the thing about me.

That is the thing about the way that my Dearest Friend has loved me.

It came before everything, before I even came here at all. It was first. And I did nothing to deserve it. Like this:

“My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.”

That is the thing about love, the reason it is a sad, half-grasping affair on this planet: love is not an embracing of the darkness. It can’t be. It is an embracing – indeed, a nurturing – of the light that may come to be. Children have taught us this, also.

The roughest, wildest of them – the ones that frighten us with their impetuosity and with their boundless foolishness – when we love them, we see the brave, noble thing they may – but may not – become. We feel almost indebted to this possible future of theirs. And while they are unlovely and tough and heartless as only children can be, our love for them is all the time entangled with a vision of their perfection. It is the reason for the ache, for the bitterness of love.

George MacDonald, perhaps, says it best,

Love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected–not in itself, but in the object. As it was love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.

I think a lot about the things that I want for the myriad of children that I love; the things I want them to do and to be and to know. It is hard to stand by and let them choose destruction and darkness and dead ends. I don’t do it if I can help it. But we can none of us be keepers of the souls of others. They do not have to listen to us. They do not have to accept the light that we pass to them reverently and with pleading. Sometimes this weighs on me, and makes love a most unbearable thing.

Then sometimes it is brought home to me that I do also run about on occasion like the wild and endangered urchins of the world, throwing back all of the gifts and the promises and disobeying flagrantly the most reasonable and beneficial orders that come to me from the hand of the Giver. How about you? Is He looking on with that unquenchable grief that our children give us?

This, I am coming to learn, is what is meant by ‘God the Father.’

More About The Great Minimum

Bryana Johnson - Stars - Space - Chesterton - Minimum - Having Decided To StayLast week on a date set aside for gratitude, I wrote about the gift universe & the story of a man who knew how to give thanks. G.K. Chesterton suggested that even in sorry & desolate conditions the bare fact of existence is mighty enough a miracle to warrant thanksgiving. He wrote a poem about it. & when I had read it & come to understand it, I was so glad that I wrote one myself — albeit a lesser composition by far:

Snatched from the yawning nothingness
and the not-being, the abyss,
He has planted you on the planet
like a lover plants a kiss.
Out of the soundless empty space
of a black hole beside a star,
He has called you up into sensing
like no kind of metaphor,
made you a beggar, grimy waif,
to take bread from the dirt with dogs,
to wring one lonely earth with anguish
like the night is wrung with frogs.

‘Joy to the world, the populace,
and the urchins beneath, and kings,’
He has shouted it to your darkness,
your orphans, your saddest things.
‘Joy if your name be listed here,
yea, if even among the slain,
you in ink lay beside the fallen,
Joy that you have a name!
Joy for the cold that drives you on,
and the wars that have made you roam,
for the way that I sent you forth and
for the long fall back to home.’

(Bryana Johnson)

The Lame Shall Enter First

Bryana Johnson - Having Decided To Stay - Flannery O'Connor

“We’re trying to be faithful,
but we’re cheatin’, cheatin’, cheatin’,”

sings Regina Spektor in a song that I have come to think of as the theme track for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, which I completed a few days ago.

O’Connor is a legendary American literary figure, known primarily for her wry and often grotesque short stories. A Roman Catholic and native of Georgia, her style has been termed “Southern Gothic.” O’Connor found herself frequently amused by the things that others said about her writing. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,” she wrote. “When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

O’Connor’s stories are horrible, but the one great horror that she struggles constantly to portray for the reader is the horror of the central figure in Regina Spektor’s song.

“I’m the hero of the story,
don’t need to be saved,”

lilts Regina to fluid piano accompaniment. It is this self-sufficient character that O’Connor’s stories rail against. She seeks him out in every setting and under every costume, and wherever she finds him she throws him up against the hard wall of original sin.

It’s easy for a casual reader to be thrown off by her depictions of Southern coarseness and to come under the impression that she is an enemy of the South. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Indeed, O’Connor finds redemption for her characters in this very coarseness and although she is determined to unveil hypocrisy wherever she finds it, she is not as troubled by the grotesque cripple that sees his inadequacy as by the smug and cultured intellectual that does not. Her stories are built around a deep understanding of the Southern psyche, but they are not about the South. They are about sin, and the sickness in the hearts of men and women.

(Spoiler Alert!)

The Lame Shall Enter First, published in 1965, is undoubtedly my favorite of her stories, and one which I feel is particularly representative of many of her recurring themes. In this story we are introduced to the atheist Sheppard, a social worker who has been widowed for a little over a year. He has a ten-year-old son, Norton, whom he is raising alone. Sheppard loathes Norton for his self-centeredness and thinks he is dull, but is too caught up in the lives of the boys he counsels at the reformatory to see his son for the pitiful, unloved, motherless child that he is.  In fact, Norton just irritates Sheppard.

Sheppard’s real concern is for fourteen-year-old Rufus Johnson, a cripple from the reformatory who has staggered Sheppard with his high IQ and filled the counselor’s head with dreams of seeing the underprivileged boy succeed. Rufus has been raised by an alcoholic grandfather in a culture saturated with fundamentalist Christian doctrines, and although the “progressive” Sheppard is convinced that he can counsel the boy out of his superstition, his optimism is sorely tried by the sullen cripple’s stony resistance. Rufus persists in spouting things like, “when I die I’m going to hell!” and when Sheppard sits him down for a talk and begins with, “There are a lot of things about yourself that I think I can explain to you,” the boy proclaims, “I ain’t asked for no explanation. I already know why I do what I do. Satan. He has me in his power.”

Sheppard gives Rufus a key to his home and invites him to come in at any time. He knows Rufus is starving and wants to feed him. He also becomes obsessed with a plan to buy Rufus a custom-made shoe for his awkward clubfoot. Because Rufus shows a slight interest in space, he purchases a telescope for the boy, hoping to give him an incentive to break out of the mold of poverty, ignorance and crime that he has been born into. He is convinced that his persistence and his good intentions will win out. He will be stronger than Rufus.

Rufus, however, is disgusted with Sheppard from the beginning. While he harbors no illusions as to his own condition and is vehement about his future in hell, Sheppard’s atheistic self-congratulation grates on him. “God, kid,” Rufus says to Norton venomously, “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ.”

Norton tries to protest that his father is good. “He helps people,” Norton explains.

“I don’t care if he’s good or not,” Rufus hisses. “He ain’t right!

Things come to a head in a poignant scene near the end of the story, when Sheppard confronts Rufus and makes his final stand. “I’m stronger than you are,” he says. “I’m stronger than you are and I’m going to save you. The good will triumph.”

Not when it ain’t true,” Rufus replies. “Not when it ain’t right.”

Sheppard continues to insist, “I’m going to save you.”

“Save yourself,” says Rufus. “Nobody can save me but Jesus.”

Sheppard’s arrogance is in for a serious take-down. As he works harder to draw Rufus in to his vision, he finds that the deeper he probes, the more evil he uncovers. Rufus is a crook and a heartless criminal and continues to betray Sheppard’s tremulous trust in him. Purely for the purpose of annoying Sheppard, he begins to speak with Norton about Norton’s mother, telling the child that she is in heaven and that if he dies as a child, he will go to be with her in heaven, but that if he grows to be an adult, he will become corrupted and go to hell instead. Norton, whose life is one great ache, hangs on every word that the older boy says and the two of them come down to breakfast one morning reading the Bible together, much to Sheppard’s chagrin.

By the end of the story, Rufus’ trouble-making and hatred has worn Sheppard out completely and he is forced to concede. Entirely disgusted with the young criminal, and leaving him to the police, Sheppard’s thoughts turn to his son and he is stricken with remorse over the way he has neglected Norton. He rushes upstairs to talk to his son and is horrified to find that the child has hanged himself on the rafters in the attic.

This is a story as loaded with irony as any of Flannery O’Connor’s gritty tales. First there is the sad fact of Sheppard, the self-proclaimed savior who has nothing to save anybody to. He considers himself to be the most educated and most well-endowed one of the lot, but in all of his education he has missed the central point of everything and the only thing that makes anything worth saving in the first place: God. He cannot see that he is pitiable and wretched and worse-off than even the ignorant and vicious hooligan Rufus. Indeed, Rufus turns out to be the only one with the answers. When he proclaims these answers, albeit in a rather muddled manner at times, they come across to educated people like Sheppard as grotesque and as ugly. To the child Norton who has not yet stilled the grasping void of the God-sized hole in his being, they are splendid.

The central theme of this story is the theme of most of O’Connor’s writing, and it is the title of the story: The Lame Shall Enter First. The crippled and the broken-down and the utterly inadequate, the children and the beggars, the meek, shall inherit the earth. The lame shall come first through the gates of the kingdom of heaven.

Like Golding in The Lord of the Flies, O’Connor paints a vivid picture of the evil ingrained in all of us. More importantly, though, she shows that it is only those who recognize the evil in themselves that can open themselves to remaking; that the way to redemption leads right through the place of nauseated self-loathing. Regina Spektor urges it too:

Hey, open wide, here comes original sin
it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.