Abilene: A Letter To My Children

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[I wrote this reflective letter last month as part of a final project for the Fall 2016 Semester Honors Discourse in Cultural Theory, taught by Dr. Travis Frampton and Dr. Dan Stiver.]

My Dear Children,

I spent some years of my young adult life in a strange metropolis on the highway that shoots through arid West Central Texas as straight as an arrow. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s a tetrarch that governs a place called Abilene, a name that means stream or brook. Texan Abilene is a stream of sorts because people from all over the world stream into its several private universities and stream out full of purpose and dreams and ambitions. But Abilene is a desert too, a spot in a road that links desolate oilfields to desolate oilfields, a wasteland of dry and disembodied knowledge, a place where things come to die. It’s an enigma how the same place can either give life or take it, depending on what you’re looking for. I think it’s mostly about what you’re looking for.

wedding-2Of course, I haven’t met anyone yet – whether in Abilene or anywhere else – who was looking for death, who didn’t hope to make something of themselves or at least to be happy. Sometimes I think the hunger to be happy might be the lowest common denominator that links people together into one all-inclusive category. The thing is, what is it they want to make of themselves? I think there’s one dominant haunting question at the core of most of the anxiety that confronts young college students trying to figure out what to study and where to live and who to marry: What version of me is going to be the happy one? It was like that for me.

The myths clamor to answer this question. Because a myth is a story and stories give an illusion of structure to a world where sometimes nothing really seems to fit together, where nothing seems certain, where nothing makes sense. People used to tell myths around the fires at the heart of villages, out under the stars on warm summer nights. They used to spin tales to make sense of wind and sky and tempests and echos and all the things that troubled and thrilled them and kept them bound to the whims of the natural world. But today, myths pour in on big screens in cinemas and small screens in our pockets, and they answer different questions. Rather than trying to structure nature, which has been somewhat tamed for an increasingly urban world, they’re our best attempts to structure our freedom, to build a framework where we can fit and be confident that we made the best possible choice.

instagramBut how can you make the best possible choice when the choices are endless, when no matter what you pick, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life scrolling through the Instagram feeds of peers who chose other things and continuously broadcast what you will never have? When I try to think of a foremost trauma that has shaped my generation, I wonder if maybe this is it: Freedom. Options. The Infinity of Possibility. The War Against Regret. Social Media. How can we be safe from these things?

Let me tell you about Abilene. In Abilene, I learned how to mix a smooth watercolor wash and stretch art paper. I learned about voting math and asteroids. I learned how to get out of a chokehold and how to polka and how to conjugate the subjunctive tense in Spanish. But I also learned something else, something that easily eclipses all of these things, something that made the West Texas years worth it:

Life isn’t safe. You have to love. It’s not safe but it’s all you can do. And you must be brave enough to do it even when it’s as scary as a lonely leap over a ravine; because love hopes all things, believes all things; because it’s love that’s making the whole world new. And love is the scariest thing of all.

There’s more. If you love Jesus, you will have a well of gladness that doesn’t have to be quenched. You can quench it if you want, but this is much more your choice than anyone will tell you.

I know. This one is a hard sell. As much as we want and need to believe that there’s a way for us to be sane and cheerful whatever comes, when it comes down to it, the comforting temptation to be aabilene victim is mighty overpowering, isn’t it? But it’s no solution. In one of his many bad novels full of staggeringly good thoughts, George MacDonald talked about this irony of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“All the doors that lead inward to the secret place of the Most High are doors outward,” he wrote. “-out of self, out of smallness, out of wrong.”

In Abilene, I learned the hard way that what it means to carry Christ is to carry a spring in your heart, a spring that can’t help leaping up, coming out, spreading its little fingers of joy to everyone it encounters. In Abilene, I learned that if you’re not a stream of life, as vulnerable as water, you’re a desert. Don’t be a desert.

Budapest

100_2041It’s been pretty quiet around here. I came over to the site to check on things and was a bit startled by how long it had been since I’d said anything! Oh well. I suppose there are worse things than taking a break from talking all the time. I’ve been working on some art projects and hope to have an exciting announcement within the next couple of weeks. I’ve read some books and can’t wait to talk about them as well. What have you been reading?

100_2029In May, I went to Spain for three weeks and hiked about 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago. There was a certain thrill involved with being abroad again, with layovers in the international terminal at the airport, and the convergence of countries at the baggage claim. When I stepped out of the shuttle at the train station in Madrid and the sidewalk smelled like cigarettes and the apartments rose around me with their walls dressed in expert graffiti, I won’t say I didn’t get a little homesick.

100_2033In Spain I stayed in the “albergue” hostels and walked through more small villages than I could ever keep track of. I drank café con leche with buttery croissants and cold tuna empanada. I had that white lemon ice cream that I’ve been missing so much. I had it quite a lot. I took my one semester of elementary Spanish to its utmost limits. But of course, none of this is of much consequence to you if you weren’t there. Most likely it is quite uninteresting.

Plot twist: I didn’t go to Budapest.

But up in the Galician mountains, on the days of moist sky and paths threading through the mist, I sang sometimes. I sang all the happiest songs I could think of, which were mostly hymns, of course, because it’s hard to get happier than I Will Sing of My Redeemer or O! For a Thousand Tongues To Sing. One thing I sang over and over was a song about Budapest. I bet you know it.

My house in Budapest
My, my hidden treasure chest
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo

You, you,
You, you
I’d lose it all.
Oh, for you, you
You, you
I’d lose it all.

Because out in the fullness of the landscapes and the cultures I’ve so often coveted, it was good to be abandoned to a better Homecoming, to belong to a plenty good enough Lover. It was good to go away just as glad as I came in, without the least relic of discontentment.

My many artifacts
The list goes on….

Pippin’s Song

P1050386This New Year’s Eve my family will continue a long tradition of watching the Lord of the Rings movies for almost twelve hours to usher in the new year. I’ve written about this practice in another post, but I won’t babble on about it again to the chagrin of others with less exciting plans for tomorrow! However, I thought this might be a good time to share a project I’ve been working on since last winter.

My skills as a painter are pretty limited, but last year I decided to venture out anyway and attempt a set of watercolors based on Pippin’s Song from the Return of the King film (adapted from some of Tolkien’s own poetry). Below is a little collage showing the finished results, although not everything could fit quite satisfactorily. To see full-scale versions of the finished pieces, you can check out the gallery here. The link will also give you an opportunity to purchase prints or notecards from Fine Art America. Thanks for stopping by, and may the remainder of your holidays be especially happy!

HomeIsBehindCollage

On Recent Adventures and Remembering the Bread

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I’m going away from my home now, like a bird leaving the old nest, and I’m fond of home. This room with its four plain walls has opened out into Heaven. Here have I drunk in God, here have I prayed, here have I wept, here have I worked, here have I agonized, and now, Farewell home!”

So wrote Oswald Chambers when, at the age of twenty-one, he packed his bags and went out without knowing.

It’s astonishing how you can be at one time gladder than you’ve ever been and also laboring under a sorrow as wide as loneliness, a grief that’s past mending. No one told me it would be like this: that triumph and desolation walk side by side, that life is so fast and so dangerous.

I’m in my first home away from home, where some things are missing: such as the narrow green stairs and the big picture windows over the pond and the pastures. Such as paychecks and darkwalks and checking the rain gauge. Such as family games and supper-table politics, and my little brother coming into my room to say goodnight each and every day of my life.

And some new things have come about, which have never been: such as big happy lunches at tables crammed with acquaintances, and cycles of cards in the lobbies and frisbee on the lawns. Such as sunset over the bleachers, and the printer humming ceaselessly, and the silent camaraderie of the library. Such as our faces lighting up when we recognize each other across the streets. Such as my little brother’s letters in the mail, sealed with rubbery wax.

Everyone says you learn so much away from home, and I don’t know about that, but in my short two weeks away, I can say I’ve learned one thing: out in the big world, what matters most isn’t education, experience, classification or credits, but kindness and the people who put the courage back into you. That isn’t what I expected, really. But it’s what I’ve found.

Because you can have every qualification in the book, and be far from qualified to do life. You can possess much valuable knowledge and yet be worthless in the scheme of things. Because what counts is to have your eyes open, to look outward and be awake, to smile at the evident and dormant beauty of people, to get out from behind the tyrannical lens of I, to see the world for what it is instead of for my place in it.

And if I have not love, I am nothing.

In the midst of all the changes and the new things, some kind people have made time for me, and last week invited me to a service where I heard something which particularly spoke to this condition of unsettledness. The pastor went to the grocery store to get just one thing that his wife asked for – bread. He got oreos and ice cream and fruit juice and chocolate milk, and filled a cart with good things and purely out of absentmindedness and distraction, he went home with no bread.

Abandoned_City__Matte_Painting_by_MarcoBucciIn the world I come from, there are altogether too many choices, too many possibilities of delight, too many potential disappointments to fret about. And something happens to obscure single-heartedness and urgency. It’s all too easy to find ourselves startled by things going wrong, and personally offended by the realization that we can’t have it all. (Me too, me too!) We talk about life like it’s a war, but seventy years can feel like a truce pretty quickly, a break in which the barracks become a premature party.

I wonder, though: what if I only had four?

Because after all my years of waiting for a next step, it’s finally come to me, and I’ve stepped out into it, and it’s only a four-year road, beyond which is a whole forest of darkness. So I’m asking, what if four years were all that was left and beyond that nothing?

loaves-of-breadI’m not sure about you, but I think I’d do them like they mattered, those skimpy four years. Not cramming in experiences, not mourning their conclusion, but busied with matters of consequence, with witness and with work.

So if we can’t have it all – if this is a battle-ship and not a pleasure-cruise, and we are going down with all hands, I guess what matters isn’t the next port, but the lifeboats.

And oh, my soul, don’t forget the Bread.

On Homesickness: A Letter to My Children

Airplane Flying
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. If they’re anything like me, they will be afflicted with a craving that creeps up at unexpected moments, and gnaws like hunger. How will they know that I too was young once, and didn’t belong anywhere? How will they know about all the music I’ve switched off and the mountains I’ve looked away from and the magazines I’ve closed up and put back on the shelf, so as to keep the sorrow of unfulfilled things at bay? How will they know there is a thread to tie up all their scattered affections? I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You don’t belong here. I’m pretty sure you know this already, although perhaps you’ve not expressed it in exactly this way. However, I think you should express it in this way.

I don’t know what the colors will be on the flag you stand under at crowded events and in places of national significance, but I can tell you for certain that you aren’t represented there. Though you stand with your brothers and pledge to defend that portion of the earth that has come to belong to you, you mustn’t suppose for even a moment that you belong to it.

You found something once that you wanted to buy and you didn’t have the money for it. A telescope or a helicopter that really whirs overhead and crashes into telephone wires. A doll with a pearly porcelain face and dark braids. You bent your being to that thing, and you worked long hours for it, and you turned down other simpler pleasures, and abstained from candy and small purchases, and it was all a great delight to you, for your eyes were fixed on a better thing. But when you acquired it in the end, you so soon grew tired of it, and put it aside. One day, you walked into your room, and tripped on that prized possession in the doorway, and broke it, and threw it in the trash.

In this way, you know you can’t put any confidence in anything you touch, for if you lean into it, it is sure to give way. Indeed, everything is slipping away. And even this youth you’re passing through today, will fade into a memory you wish you could enter again.

The blue planet has housed you for some time now, and you’re starting to understand that something isn’t right. In spite of all that is startling and surprising and good, there is a mournful well of emptiness at the bottom of every cup. The question is, is the lack in you? Or is it in your sad, unsatisfactory corner of the world?

Or is it in the world?

GalataBridgeMy children, I have been in the world. I have made my home in more than one sad corner of it. I have lived more than half of my years in a country where a different language was spoken and with a people I didn’t belong to – although through the love that I had for them, they came to belong to me. When I was just coming out of my childhood, I left that place suddenly and was planted in the country that was mine – but which I didn’t love and had no part in.

I knew that it would hurt. But I didn’t know it would go on hurting, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I didn’t know I would never be able to hear the music of that country with my heart healed of aching. I didn’t know that the sound of other languages – any of them – drifting through a park or over a television screen, would make me alert, and tense, and hungry. I didn’t know that the National Geographic would be a pain I would pursue in an unreasonable way, flipping the pages, and closing the book, and opening it up again. I didn’t know that sometimes I would change the subject suddenly in conversation, and sometimes I would babble on at inopportune times, half-hoping someone would see my grave wound of displacement and ask me about it, and half-hoping no one would.

Ankara StreetIt’s remarkable – the way we can use words without feeling their import like a knife in the heart. Like the way we can talk about homesickness and not realize what we’re talking about is a malady that wakes people up at night in dread and in loneliness, and makes every place desolate.

There are times when I put my knuckles in my mouth and cry for no apparent reason, except that I’ve fancied I smell the sea on the air, or someone on the street looks like a child I once knew, or down a hallway someone is playing oriental dance music.

The evident truth is that I am homesick. But the bigger truth is that I am not homesick for any place I know. I am homesick in the way that you are homesick – sick not only because the place where we live is not home, but because we can’t find any place that is.

I and the others who’ve been through the nations of the world, we know this by now: how it’s possible to be homesick for so many countries, and not at home in any of them. How the awkward neutral ground of the airport can be the most comfortable place you know.

Poet W.S. Merwin wrote in his poem about airports,

we travel far and fast
and as we pass through
we forget
where we have been

But this isn’t so. For we never forget where we’ve been. It comes back to us in strange ways, whether we wish to remember it or not. It comes in the fragrance of tea leaves, or a certain slant of light on the snow. It comes in snatches of so many songs and in the contrails that crease the sky. It comes in old fuzzy photographs that you don’t remember ever seeing, and in power outages and firelight and pink thyme-flowers, and billowing storms. It comes in hot soup, and unexpected valleys in the forest, and etched words on trees. It comes back to us in the lights behind doors that are shut.

May 15th 2004 001Dear children, I think you should know that all your life you’ll be haunted by these echoes that come out of nowhere and ravage your contentment. And whether you travel to all 196 countries, or never get beyond the town you were born in, this ache that tells you what you have isn’t enough – it isn’t going away.

In Greek, the word is nostos. It means to return. The word that is wedded to it, is algos. It means suffering. We call it nostalgia, a suffering caused by the unappeased longing to return. But this isn’t quite true.

Let me tell you something you might not know yet: even if you could go back, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if you could have the thing you so desperately miss, you can’t make yourself quit hungering. Just like with the doll or the telescope, your homesickness is a hunger that possession does nothing to mitigate. Children, you know already that if all your dreams are shattered, it will hurt. But you must understand that if everything comes about exactly according to your longing, it will still hurt. Homesickness doesn’t tell you what you want. It only tells you that you have not got it.

LastHomelyHouseSometime in your life you’ve seen some ghost of what you want. Somewhere you caught sight of water plunging from an ethereal height, or the winking lamps of a city far away, that tasted like the Better Country. Some page you turned spoke about it. Something whispered out of an unexpected stillness and reminded you that all striving towards wholeness is out of reach while the Last Homely House lies so desperately beyond your grasp.

There is a reason why I think you ought to express all this by saying you don’t belong here: because it’s important that you understand your dissatisfaction is no accident, no glitch in the system of the universe, no bug in the program. The hunger that you have, it has an object. Someone said it best like this,

Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner, a memory. We are all kings in exile.”

The reason you can’t belong anywhere here? It’s because you already belong somewhere else. Those wants you have, that aren’t satisfied by anything you can get your fingers on? There is a place that has been shaped to fit into your desires.

Swallow_LastavicaThere is a book that I hope you read someday. In it a young boy who has lost everything he has, meets an old man who is passing on. “I did not want you to fly away,” the boy says.

And there is great sympathy in the old man’s voice. “But we all must fly away.” It is the ghastly, gorgeous apex of truth.

“Why must we?” asks the boy. But he is pretty sure he already knows. “Because this is not our home?”

“Yes,” says the old man, “because this is not our home.”

But if this is not our home, some other place is. “I go,” said the homeless world’s wanderer, when He was leaving, “to prepare a place for you.

Children, don’t be afraid to be hungry. Don’t be afraid if nothing fills you up. Don’t be afraid to admit that you belong to no place you’ve been to. Even supposing you could, you don’t want to get too comfortable here. After all, you won’t be here for long.

But how long the days are under the sun! – and you will be bearing your home-hunger all the way. Children, you must learn how to put roots out into the soil of a country, and make the fattest fruits you can produce, sun-ripe and splitting. After all, you may be here for a long time yet.