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.

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.

 

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

P1000235 - Copy
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.