Childhood Is The Kingdom

When I was a child, I read The Wizard of Oz over the course of a few days. I was eight years old and reading still made me feel accomplished. I read it everywhere, from tOortCloudhe top bunk of my bed with the yellow blankets to a tiny balcony of an office building in Ankara, walking back and forth over old leaves on the stained concrete. I tried (but mostly failed) to ration it, to make sure I wouldn’t finish it too soon, because I was already old enough to know that the best things in life should be saved and unwrapped slowly, then savored like expensive chocolate or buttered crab.

I knew that Old Yeller was going to die and even though I wept like a faucet for Where The Red Fern Grows, I didn’t feel cheated and the world didn’t darken. 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, it was a disappointment unlike anything else that had happened to me. I lay awake that night and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem of the same name:

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. But, she says.

But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

The obvious thrust of this vivid and unsettling poem is, of course, the part about nobody dying. The expected emotional safety of the very young and the presence of wrenching grief as a distinguishing aspect of adulthood.

But there is something else that stands out to me about this poem. Childhood is the kingdom. The poem touches on more than the absence of death in the lives of children. It speaks to the presence of benevolent power, the irresistible magnetism of monarchy.

There is this thing about a kingdom. Everything is under control. Someone-Who-Knows is in charge of things. Nothing can go ultimately wrong. And isn’t this the essence of traditional childhood?

When we were children, tragedies could happen to us. Like a favorite doll breaking or a bike crash or an unfulfilled promise of ice cream. But nothing could really go irretrievably awry. There were always adults around us who knew what to do. And God, of course, could do anything for us. But we hardly needed Him to. We had parents who had all the answers and when we were afraid, it wasn’t the fear of a best friend bleeding out after a car crash, or wasting our lives or marrying someone who won’t love us forever or dying alone in a dim, squeaky house without even flowers.

DorothyWe were afraid of wasps. Or Chihuahuas. Or timed math tests.

To the skeptics who populate an unkinged world, The Wizard of Oz reflects sad reality. The transition is from trust to an empty truth. There is no one who has any idea what in the heck is going on. We, limited, ridiculous, arrogant and clueless, really are the only guardians of the galaxy.

But I subscribe to a different narrative: that there is a kingdom. And we must become children all over again, for there is no other way to get in.

It’s been awhile since I’ve put any poems up on the blog, so here’s one I wrote awhile back on this subject. It was an attempt to configure all these ideas into a compressed format, but I’m afraid that without this semi-lengthy explanation, it wouldn’t have made too much sense.

LOSS: [after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz]

“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies)

Childhood is the kingdom.
There are fierce beasts howling in the heart of the forbidden forest
and little people peer at you from cracks in walls
and the stamen-cups of flowers, tittering.
Wily witches will cook you and eat you for dinner
if you let them catch you.
But you don’t.

Childhood is the kingdom.
At the end of the long road through the valley of shadow and poison-flowers,
looms the jubilant city and the great throne room.
There are decrees under hot wax seals,
on parchment, rules that make sense,
and if you do all you have set out to do, you will live
happily ever after.

Childhood is the kingdom.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child,
I thought as a child, I turned the pages of fairyland and found it very good.
Oh, Dorothy in gingham-blue,
your little dog, your simple friends,
there is a green witch after you! But it is alright,
there is a wizard too.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And we are skipping, dancing down the yellow-brick road,
for all our troubles, all our tears,
are bottled for the reckoning and written in the book.
That we are little and helpless is of no account
for we are making our happy way to Oz
the Great and Powerful.

Childhood is the kingdom.
And unless you become as a child, you shall in nowise enter therein.
I put the story down crying when
the man is behind a curtain and is only a man.
I was oppressed by the sudden press of danger and
awoke in a dark bedroom to the thick aloneness
and could not be comforted.

 

Love In A Time of Tigers

Valentines DayWal-Mart doesn’t die out at 11 pm on February 13th. I was in there last night and found it crawling with men bearing hunted expressions in their eyes and chocolate in their carts and tulips in their hands. The lines to the register included as many as ten weary customers at once. Females were in the minority. There was so much delightfully right about this and simultaneously so much that was pitifully wrong. I was glad I was present to have a good laugh.

Isn’t it splendid that we have a holiday for couples to be happy in front of the world, and to set aside time for the things we forget to make time for? Like fancy suppers and candlelight and letters and roses and remembrance? I’m glad the calendar has a space for romance.

But I’ll confess: sometimes I’m a little terrified by it.

TigerSometimes I turn on the radio and feel a bit sick – are you with me? Just like animals, Adam Levine choruses over the airwaves. He says it all. Look around at the world and you’ll see how the beast-face comes through. My planet has a culture so blatantly flesh-hungry, that sometimes I’m afraid to belong here.

Sometimes I run wildly to the shelter of the Word Made Flesh because it’s the only kind thing on all this fettered planet. It’s the source of all respect and all chivalry and all courtesy and all romance and all that constitutes the high wall between you and me and nature red in tooth and claw. And if we’re moving away from that glorious gospel, we’re falling back into the bloody domain of the beasts.

What’s with this willingness to slip into the roles we were fashioned to rule over? Why be a crimson-clawed tiger who tears and will be torn, when you can be a prince with a gold scepter and a King-Dad who calls all the shots?

Historians can’t decide which Saint Valentine is responsible for our own festivities on February 14th. You see, there were at least three of them. In the legends, all three were men of honor who died for their love, ripped apart by the animals that the world hosts in abundance. In the most prevalent stories, these martyrdoms involved beating, stoning and eventual decapitation. We’re not talking about the kind of love that was doing its frantic last-minute shopping in Wal-Mart last night.

What wondrous love is this? What were those Saint Valentines up to, and why do we commemorate them with a holiday about romance?

Well, it turns out that Saint Valentine’s Day has everything to do with romance. The thing is, this is about a romance that’s bigger than the sweetest created beloved you’ll ever know. The Saint Valentines gave their lives because they couldn’t stop talking about the Romance that trumps everything. They couldn’t shut up about the World’s Great Lover. They said it would be better not to live than to live in a world where you can’t talk about Jesus.

Blood_Of_JesusDo I feel like that? Do you?

If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, just let me say: don’t be sorry no one took you to dinner. The impeccable Prince of Men cried blood for you. Don’t be sorry your room isn’t a rainbow of flowers. The Hero who overrides every storybook champion invites you to ride with Him ever after. Don’t you be saying no one loves you. While your understanding was foggy and violent like the tigers in the jungle, the real MVP said, “how about a deal? I’ll go down under the red claws if this beast can come out and walk upright and be a man.”

The Little Drummer Boy: A Love Story

StarI learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.

This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.

nativity2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu, says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,

I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.

I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.

Then, a few hours later, I did.

I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!

Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.

The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:

Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts
.

You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.

When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:

Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Little Lamb scan esizeAfterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.

so to honor him
when we come

This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.

This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.

No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.

If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.

I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.

What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?

Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.

Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile

On Sudden Celebration and Making Ready for Advent

???????????We were in the library when it happened. We had come over the crisp and dusky concrete walks in our overcoats and our hats and converged there under the lights. We were buried in our books, in calculus problems and those long research papers that all professors decide to assign at exactly the same time, so that class schedules are as inefficient as they can be.

The school library is a happy, wide place, riven with windows, as I think every home of books ought to be (because the words should mean something out in the real world, and I want to keep looking up and checking to make sure they do). No matter that all you can see is drab houses on the bad side of town, and the landfill.

A couple came in from the other side of the glass with cold red faces and let the frigid air into the room. They came like the bearers of an open secret and told it to the air in general. “It’s snowing!” they said, their mouths full of laughing. We got up so fast we left our coats and our hats hanging over the egg chairs and banged through the exit bars.

The library spilled its inhabitants in a mild frenzy of celebration. My sister went running out over the lawns and the bridge just to see the campus in its fairytale mode and on the porch we stood and laughed at her and laughed at each other and laughed with strangers and snapped pictures and shook snow out of our hair and put out our tongues to catch the white feathers. It was as though something we’d all been waiting for without knowing it had suddenly arrived.

I wondered about that. I wondered why when we went away to supper with the wet ice-scraper on the floorboards and our fingers crowded at the vents of the heater the world felt so jubilant and so laced with perfection.

And I thought of something. I thought about the time when the lame and sorry world was infused with song and a sudden radiance came into everything. It’s a story I know far too well for my own good, because it grows ordinary sometimes, when every thought of it ought to be like an annunciation – it’s snowing! – ought to drive us together into little groups of laughter and send us out to make triumphant music in every public place.

There is a time set aside for us to do those things. There is a space in the calendar when it’s even acceptable to sing in the street and tell the wondrous story in every venue we can find. It’s not time to deck the halls yet or play the music of proclamation. It’s not even Advent, the time of waiting. But so soon it will be and then it will be passed – and how many times is Christmas going to come around and go around and how shall I enter into the significance of it and abide there?

I’m just asking: what are we going to do to join the party?

SnowLampsBecause this is bigger than a sudden snowfall in the south and calls for heaps of exultation. And the time doesn’t have to be cleared of deadlines, and it’s OK if we’re living a long tragedy. After all, the story of God-With-Us is about the Fullness of Glory arriving to inhabit the Not Yetness of Things. So I’m thinking about a philosophy of stopping where I am and doing a whole list of celebratory actions. Are you going to take starwalks and sing carols on the sidewalks and in the stores and give money you don’t feel like you have to those who truly don’t have it?

I think I am going to make me a list.

Because the midst of the earth is a raging mirth. And the heart of the earth a star.

On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.