Abilene: A Letter To My Children

abilene2

[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.

Advertisements

Sometimes

DSCF0034

While I’m adjusting to a new schedule and a new city, and all out of time, here are some words by someone else, that underscore the music in the world, that left me a little breathless here. May it happen for you.

SOMETIMES
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscatel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

[Sheenagh Pugh]

Pieces of Today, June 18th

1. A snatch of sketch from a six-month art project…
Sam Spider Sketch - Copy
2. Penny and Sparrow, their soft acoustic songs that go on rolling off your tongue through the days. Like Brothers (because sometimes? All that counts is, don’t give up). Like Heroes and Monsters (because we’re all a bit tied to the Silver Chair and the moon’s gonna rise no matter what). Like Creature (every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch your gorgeous face), like Slaves (because, I’m a new slave, yes, my name has been changed, I am yours.)

 Every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch Your gorgeous face – See more at: http://incitefaith.com/2012/05/song-of-the-week-12/#sthash.fOkeqkFX.dpuf
 Every joy I’ve seen is waste when I touch Your gorgeous face – See more at: http://incitefaith.com/2012/05/song-of-the-week-12/#sthash.fOkeqkFX.dpuf

3. The long spring of kinky lettuce and the lastavice infants in the shed:
Lastavica
4. The undulating, undisciplined brilliance of Hopkins. A thought from Wreck of the Deutschland:

Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;

4000 Gifts: A Story of Arrival

P1040686Some years ago, I was seventeen, and life made almost no sense. What a surprise.

That is, I had my bearings on a great many matters, and I had a veritable collection of high ideals, but they were just that: ideals. And when you are young and living in your parents’ house, it is probable that everything worth having will seem to be far in the distance. If you are not careful, that will never change.

The story of the seventeen year old whose life makes no sense is hardly a novel one. But neither is the story of the college graduate whose life still makes no sense. Or the mid-career professional. Or the young housewife. Or the wealthy, retired couple that vacations in Europe. Or the worn old man, full of days, who finally holds up the white flag and gives his surrender to cancer, and whose life makes no sense to him at all.

P1040675The fact of the matter is, there is a sense in which life makes no sense. Ever. Because now we see through a glass darkly, and what we see is shadowy and muddled and absurd. Sometimes we know what we are looking at, despite the fact that the picture comes in blurry and unclear. But sometimes we haven’t the faintest idea.

When I was seventeen, I supposed all this would eventually change, and that at some point, I would stop running into mysteries and trouble and arrive at the place of complete satisfaction, happy in the work of my choosing, and not hungering anymore. Someday, I supposed, I would have everything I wanted, and get rid of the ache that rises up in me when the front door opens and the world smells like rain, or when the sun goes down paving the ocean with gold. But I was very wrong.

P1040641Thankfully, something happened to me four years ago to stop me in my tracks and turn me around to face my life – my own splendid life that was passing me by every day while I was refusing to take delight in it. Refusing, because the good that I had was not as good as it might be, and because I kept hoping I could make peace with the hunger in me, and would not look it in the eyes.

The thing that happened to change everything was that I stumbled over some old words, and chose to wake up to the myriads of good things that crowded me on every side, and to give them names, and to give them records. Most significantly, this was the only thing that changed. For in every other way, my life went on just as it had been going on, and nothing was different but myself.

P1040628I have filled hundreds and hundreds of pages, and made lists that are crooked and illustrated them with little patches of paintings that are disproportionate and smudged and sometimes just plain ugly. And my days have been checkered with darkness, and not a few regrets, but when I go back to look at what remains of them, what I see is hundreds and hundreds of gifts, for that is all I have recorded of all this time.

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

someone asked in a little poem from the past century. For when we’re in debt to love so immense, every little thing that we get is a gift.

This week was the four-year anniversary of the gift-lists in my life. This week I put down #4000 in a little spiral-bound notebook, with a worn-out pen. Like this:

#4000 – “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

P1040670And thus did I arrive at the place I was seeking, and found out it was exactly the place I was living.

The time to arrive at the place of complete satisfaction is now. Because satisfaction isn’t found in a place or a time or a country. It’s found in the World’s Great Lover. And you’re going to hunger all your days – all of these days that you spend down here under the sun. So you might as well stop trying to put a gag in the gaping, and decide to put a good face on it instead.

Take heart, for the day is coming when we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.