Lights On Your Napkin


Here’s the thing: I don’t get poetry. There’s stacks of The New Yorker sitting next to me- all dog-eared on pages with shaped columns of words. I quote T.S. Eliot almost as much as the Bible. I even write poetry, the kind I wish to be published in one of those crummy literary magazines which- at best- makes for suitable toilet paper. Despite all this, I just don’t get it.

Even as I type this, I watch my fingers with some sort of wonder, like an infant who just discovered her toes. I believe this is because poetry- good poetry- is something transcendent. It touches a part of us that we, otherwise, might not know exists.

I went for a walk tonight. It’s cold and everything is covered in crisp, sharp darkness. But from where I stand my eyes follow the road as it clings to a hillside, pulling itself to the top, like seals onto land. And the road is lined with street lights. And the night is so dark but the lights so bright that I see them as floating, floating in the void.

As he was walking among the crowds, one voice rose above the others and captured Jesus’ attention. My son, the man said. Please, my son!

And Jesus told him that anything is possible for those who believe.

And in response, the father said five words:

I believe. Help my unbelief.

There’s a slope in the foothills of Indiana where I learned to ski. To those in the area it was a ski resort. But anyone who lived in a locale where you can’t get a view by standing atop the recycling bin would regard it as an oversized mogul. That said, it was steep enough to allow me the opportunity cut some turns before flying due south with all the eloquence of a bowling ball down stadium steps. It was one of the highlights of my childhood, really.

We used to ski a few days each year- my family that is. And at day’s end we’d leave just as the sun had finished setting. By then the lights would be turned on; night skiing began. And as the hill receded in the rearview mirror, the car was warm, my legs were tired, and I could see the lights floating like globes above the trees. If I looked close enough, I could see the chairlifts themselves inching up the slope, pulling souls heavenward.

Ernest Hemingway, while eating at a hotel in Manhattan, wagered his companions ten dollars apiece that he could write a novel in just six words. They agreed. So he took the napkin from his lap scrawled:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn

Then he collected his money. It’s impressive, really. But I prefer the one with five.

Then there’s Marcus Meibomius. He was a Hebrew scholar in the seventeenth century. At the height of his career he boasted that his efforts had uncovered the true science of Hebrew meter, all the secrets and wonders to unlocking the Psalms. Meibomius promised to release his secret as soon as 60,000 subscribers promised him five pounds of sterling a piece for a copy of his work. 

Thus, he carried his secret to the grave.

Five pounds of sterling, it might as well be thirty silver coins.

I may not understand words- really, who can? But I can see them everywhere, floating above my life as lights on a hill. And their beauty lifts me like skiers onto the lift. From up here I hear the cry of a father, begging to be carried up the hill, towards the floating globes. And I hear a mother, weeping at the bottom, hands clenched around a clean pair of child’s shoes. And the lights. What a terrible, beautiful thing they are, bearing us up in the darkness.

It’s like a dream, this life is. Like distant memories of cold and darkness and aching knees, stupid bets, heaving sobs-Dear God, those shoes- and lights pulling, pulling us upward, forward, onward.

And I want to speak of something wonderful. Can I try? It’s a poem and a novel; Hemingway- the buffoon- drew me into his game. He challenged me to gamble around the dinner table of my heart, to wage against the dark voices of apathy and indifference.

For I can tell you of a hill, a boy, tired eyes, a warm car, dark void and lights. I can tell you of beauty that was not sold, of words that became flesh, and light that dwelt among us. It lifts us and carries us-sometimes without us even knowing- out of the depths of despair, ignorance, and indifference. I can tell you of it all. With just five words. They’re not mine, mind you. But they’re good.

Here, give me your napkin.

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