More Than Shining Hours

more than shining hours


I ran into one of my professors a few weeks after graduation.

“Oh!” he said, as if I were a solicitor he’d left sitting on the doorstep. “Why—you’re still here!”

I told him I’d found a job in the area.

“Well, good. It’s not such a bad place to be, I ‘spose.”

“No,” I replied. “I don’t suppose it is.”

There’s a lull over the seminary campus these past few days. The classrooms are empty, the lights turned off. The chapel is quiet, the cafeteria sparsely populated. Moving trucks appear then vanish in the night like guilty gypsies, stealing corners of the community as they go.

“I know Paradise is real which we have lost,” the poet Evan S. Connell writes. “But find again through the gates of memory.”

He continues with a question: “should I mark more than shining hours?”

I saw something beautiful today. Problem is, I can’t- for the life of me- remember what it was. I walked several laps around the kitchen searching for a glimmer of revelation; through the bedroom and bathroom, pausing at the entry of each like a grandfather: “what did I come here for?” I even submitted myself to the gratuitous task of finishing off a bag of chocolate chips from the pantry (I heard somewhere that chocolate is a memory food, but I can’t remember where).

It’s been three years since I moved to this small coastal town to begin my seminary studies. I came for a degree; I earned a degree. I should be happy. And I am, I suppose.

I often joked that I didn’t want to go to seminary because I’d rather not lose my faith. Here I am on the flipside of that joke and sometimes it doesn’t seem so funny. I’ve not lost faith, mind you. But I have lost my faith, the personal ownership I had on the moral code and divine communication that propped up walls of defense around my comfort zone. I’ve lost that.

(An hour later, I still can’t recall that beautiful memory.)

After hurricane Sandy swept through New York and flooded some of the subways, scientists took samples of molecules from the tunnel walls and cars. Among these they found molecular echoes of organisms only known to exist in Antarctica.

I find this reassuring. It settles within me the conviction that all things are foreknown by a being who loves to view the stars from an infinitude of different angles; nothing is normal enough to not be wonderful.

A couple years ago I began writing essays: one a week, every week, always capped at eight hundred words. To myself (and any bloke unfortunate enough to be trapped in the conversation at a social gathering) I called them ‘small essays on small wonders.’ Some of them I’m not even sure what I was talking about. Others were almost profound. But all of them were hash marks, photographs, murals on a city wall: a metronome marking off my days in seminary in ¾ time (click…tick, tick…click…tick, tick).

I just walked another lap around my apartment, I even peaked my head out the window. What on earth am I trying to remember?

My seminary education is over; it happened, completed, flew by, wallah! This chapter of my life is closing in on me, with every classmate who disappears in a U-Haul and every professor who’s slightly startled with my remaining. Every week I’ve face my literary vendetta with all the cynicism in the world. But every week beauty rises up and conquers.

Life happens slowly; still it goes by so fast. And the conundrum of human existence is answered in tiny whispers: a tire swing, cardboard box, abandoned coffee mug, carpet stain and melting ice. The little moments save us from the big questions. The shining hours burn out like fireworks: brilliant and spectacular. And the crowd cheers, couples kiss, then later- as they’re walking home- a mother notices her child has stopped and is perfectly still, staring up into the sky.

“The stars,” he says, “Mom, look at the stars.”

There’s so much beauty, so much pain in this world. But I’m comforted by the fact that I can’t remember all of it. And if I believe anything, I believe that somehow the beautiful outweighs the evil; that the darkness of night is a means by which the stars appear so beautiful. There are a million beautiful things I overlook, ignore, take for granted or pass by- everyday and everywhere. And yet, they remain. I’m going to call this ‘grace.’

I’ve tried to capture that grace. Still it eludes me, enfolds me and holds me. Like grace does; like we hope; like we are.

I promise this is the last time I’ll mention it- but I still can’t remember the beautiful something I saw.

I suppose I’ll put that to rest.















The Edge of the Universe


In 1965, two scientists by the name of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were attempting to set up a large communications antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey. But their efforts produced an annoying background noise, a “steady, steamy hiss that made any experimental work impossible.” They did everything they could to make it stop: re-wiring circuits, fidgeting with knobs, unplugging plugs; their efforts culminated when they climbed into the dish itself and scrubbed it clean of all dust and- get this- copious amounts of bird poop. Still, the buzz continued.

As it turns out, Penzias and Wilson had inadvertently discovered microwaves from the edge of the known universe, 90 billion trillion miles away. These two men had succeeded in “looking” deep enough into space so as to find cosmic, background radiation left over from the origin of the universe itself.

“Oh, so it wasn’t bird poop?”

I’m having my (annual) mid-life crisis. It started while I was waiting for a friend to pick me up from my apartment; we’d arranged to go biking together. He was late so I idled around the parking lot, glancing at my phone, nodding to people walking by and tried desperately not to look like a prom date that’s being stood up.

Even though it was just a few minutes, I felt as if I might go insane without something demanding my immediate attention. My mind raced to corners of contemplation that scared the bejesus out of me: what a perfect day- how many of these do we get in a lifetime? And what is a lifetime really? What’s the purpose of it? Of this? Of conscience existence? Of everything?!

And I thought of those scientists, a half-century ago in New Jersey, who were scraping off bird poop, inadvertently ridding themselves of discovering the edge of the universe.

We humans like to attach time to things: obligations, appointments, jobs, events, calendars, all of a linear nature, all to help us comprehend our own niche in eternity. I’m no different. I wake up and I go to the office; I come home, work out, make dinner, read a book, watch some TV, balance the checkbook, brush my teeth, swap pillows while my wife’s in the bathroom (we both have a favorite pillow but if I swipe it before she’s in bed she really doesn’t notice) and I go to sleep.

This is life, my life. And I love it. And if you gave me the chance I wouldn’t change anything (except perhaps my pillow). Just the notion that I could feels like da Vinci asking me what alterations to make on the Mona Lisa. But then I find myself in a moment of stillness and I realize how little of this life I conscientiously live.

My wife and I picked strawberries this afternoon. She was smiling, it was sunny, and our fingers were pink with juice from the ones that were a bit too ripe. She held up our crate of berries and I took a picture, for posterity, social media and the hope of setting glaze on this particular moment in our time together. And I thought that perhaps, someday, the sun might shine like this forever.

These are the moments of peace and stillness, moments of conscientious existence that comfort and terrify me, moments when thoughts ricochet in my head, making a sound that mystifies and terrifies at the same time.

So this is the part where I get preachy and talk about how I resolved to be more present in every moment and we walked hand-in-hand to a lifetime of carpe diem-ness. But I didn’t and we’ve not; if you must know, when we got back in the car we began quarreling about the air conditioning.

Life is a journey- a linear one, because that’s all we know how to live. We’re born, scrape our knees, lose our teeth, earn degrees, fall in love, write poetry, get promotions, take medicine, build homes and swing-sets and pass on the best of our wisdom and lottery of our genes to another generation. Then we retire (to Florida, God help us) and things come to an end. We move always forward, aching for the immortality to step into the universe beyond our own.

So, at the end of it all, maybe I’ll find myself sitting around in a body that barely works anymore. And I’ll feel like all of the time in the world is behind me, pushing me towards the edge everything I know. And, if I can, I’ll hold for a moment and stop to look back.

But there’ll be nothing to see, because it’s all beyond and here now, around me and with me. And it will be something beautiful, something which, before now, was completely unknown.

And all this time we thought it was bird poop.





These Stories We Tell


I’m sitting in church and trying to listen to the sermon. It’s raining outside; the water falls against the window like sheets on a bed someone’s making in the morning. Inside the pews are packed. A baby cries; the couple in the next seat over whispers back and forth. There’s a teenage girl in front of us, her dress matches her nail polish; her hair pulled up in a bun with hormonal precision.

And there’s my pastor. A good preacher, really. He’s finishing a series on the story of Esther.

But a spark of movement beneath the pew in front of me catches my eye. It darts around the wooden leg of the pew. Is that a spider? I can’t be sure. But it is something, something tiny; ten of them could fit on the head of a needle. The only reason I know it’s even alive-even something- is because it’s moving so fast; I see blurs and imagine eight little legs rushing like blades on a helicopter.

“While the tale of how we suffer,” James Baldwin writes, “and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” I read this in the memoir of a man who overdosed on heroin, and thought of it on hearing Esther’s story. Baldwin adds: “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

No one has ever heard silence. No one except God in the beginning. But then he spoke and something happened, existence happened, noise happened, we happened. And all these happeneds, all the stuff of legends, religion, wars, romance and life itself, they all find their way into one word: stories. Heavens and the earth, an apple, snake, and the only permissible naked pictures in Sunday school; Israelites, a temple-tabernacle-whatchamacallit, slaughtered animals, a baby in a manger, a cross and a tomb. And now this sermon, this room, men dressed in suits, teenagers slouching and texting out of sight; a spider dashing between the pew.

What are any of these without words? Consider the following counter to Mr. Baldwin: “a light shines in the darkness.”

Plato once commiserated that when people started writing they began forgetting. A startling observation. Stories have always existed. But our means of conveying them -blogs, pop-up books, foreclosure notices and song lyrics scrawled on diner napkins- the words we use to pin these stories on paper were once just as novel as the microwave or internet. And they were, to Plato, as ridiculous a means of existence as Facebook to my grandparents.

The spidersomething darts back under the pew. Is it a spider? A tiny bug? A delusion? I am learning something just by asking the question. It disappears again, around the time of my pastor’s fourth point (it’s a Presbyterian church).

That’s the remarkable thing about stories, the way they dart to and fro, like tiny somethings beneath a Sunday pew. They never stop but sometimes disappear. They are part of our world and then they are gone, almost as soon as we hear them. And with stories that our minds wander, weaving the the tapestry of time. Until the story leads us from our need for a verdict; “only those who believe obey,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “and only those who obey believe.”

The story of Jesus is not that of a masochistic bloke who just happened to be God. It’s the story of a God who entered the story because he’s fascinated with the narrative and- befuddlingly so- the characters themselves. That takes a kind of desire that words- regardless of how inspired, conveyed, or regarded- cannot capture.

We’ve forgotten how to tell this story; we took the apple, wrote it down; we’re distracted in the pew and forgetful too. These stories we tell are nothing more than reality roped and noosed onto a few stubborn, fallible words. They are not the end of the matter; you do not train a stallion by getting a rope around its neck and hanging on for dear life. We are not God. We’ve no ability to hear them not told.

And so these stories we tell are themselves a confession, a confession to the power of the first word, the light in darkness, the God of the silent whirlwind. These stories we tell in our sermons, emails, love notes, sitcoms and mortgage papers- these stories are something miraculous and mysterious; if only we catch a glimpse as they dart back under the pew.

So we press on, we live on, we search on, and we move on.

And someday maybe we’ll remember; we’ll hear the reality behind the words. We’ll see the spider, confess our belief, and these stories we tell will become quaint recollections of when we didn’t know better.

And oh, the stories we’ll tell.