The Grace Of Being

New Years celebrations never consist of much for me. Last year, my fiancé and I rang in the occasion with my parents and little sister, the young couple equivalent of cheap wine and a couchful of cats. We were all so pathetically tired that we put in a movie in an attempt to keep us occupied and awake until the ball dropped. This worked too well and we actually missed the ball dropping by two minutes after which we collectively said “screw it” to the whole ordeal, gulped some champagne, and slouched off to bed. Live to cheer another day.

This year wasn’t much more lively seeing as my fiancé came down with what I can only assume is food poisoning this past weekend. What startled me was how quickly she went from happily watching a movie with me to puking her sweet little guts out. Since we don’t live together, I’m not normally at her place very late and thus spent a sleepless night on the floor next to her bed. I suppose any couple on the verge of marriage should have to endure at least one of those types of nights before they sign their vows. It’s up on the list with family squabbles and untimely car trouble.

I’ve been reading a novel that grapples with the issues of climate change. The book fascinates me on several levels but it also scares me. It scares me because of how easily I’m prone to not care about things like climate change, how quickly I roll my eyes and shrug it off as a political issue, one that the church shouldn’t deal with, how rapidly I just disappear into the mountains and forests well out of the ear shot of any highways and reminders of the human footprint.

But sometimes I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I’m forced to look out my front door at a world that’s being burned, land-filled and plowed to death.

And yet we march on. It can’t be that big of a deal; another year has passed and we’re still here. It may be a bad now but my fiancé will get over this food poisoning eventually.

Humans are in love with the idea or our persisting, Barbara Kingsolver says, we fetishize it really. So I find myself looking around on New Year’s Eve wanting to yell at everyone: “what the hell are you cheering for? What on earth have we accomplished? And what’s with this confetti? Don’t you know pigeons can choke on this? Are you just totally heartless?” It’s like a general standing in front of dying soldiers and cheering: “By golly…another great day at the office, eh?”

I note this with certain hypocrisy. Hanging on the cross, Christ was able to forgive the men being tortured next to him, as well as those who drove in the nails. Me? I enjoy looking around at a New Years party and wondering which of those sinning bastards has the biggest carbon footprint. I really am the worst of these.

After a few hours my fiancé was able to fall asleep and in the morning she seemed to be feeling better though weak. Sometimes there is not an answer. As C.S. Lewis said: sometimes the complaint is the answer. The complaint is the answer for the heart of the cynic.

Because sometimes I help my weak fiancé down to the couch and I make sure she’s okay. Sometimes afterwards I take a walk outside, to get some fresh air to clear my head. And sometimes when I’m walking, when all these thoughts muddle my head and the weight of it all seems entirely suffocating, I look around at the old snow, clinching to it’s frozen territory on the ground. Then I glance at the shoes on my feet, my hands in my pockets and somehow, for just a moment, I am able to be content with that answer: the answer of my being, my being as a grace. Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? I say nothing in response; I just look at the ground.

But my complaint is an answer and my ability to make it is proof that grace is sufficient. Global warming, survival, food poisoning and New Years aside…for just a moment sometimes I can take being as a grace.

With another year underway people across the globe raised glasses, swapped kisses, picked confetti out of their hair and cheered humanity’s accomplishment of making it through another round. In the midst of it all, I stood with cynical hands in my pockets and eyes of hypocrisy cast toward my feet upon the ground. And for the briefest of moments I pondered the grace of being.

For one as cynical as me, that was something wonderful and worth celebrating.

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Sunday Quotes: Bronze-Eyed Possibilities

“Oh, how can I say this: People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possible care less about our economic statues or our running day calendar. Wilderness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.”

 

-Barbara Kingsolver; Small Wonder

Bright-Eyed Possibilities

I emerged from the library the other night to tumultuous rain and lightning flashing in the sky. I’d spent the previous hours flipping through flash cards and reading systematic theology. My fiancé has always enjoyed taking drives in thunderstorms, and on this particular evening I was greatly in need of a break, so we set off. As we were driving down a backcountry road the rain bounded into the windshield with a steady tap-top-tap-top but we were otherwise reflectively silent.

I like to tell myself that my academic efforts are in pursuit of acquiring valuable knowledge; others encourage me that its all for the building of the kingdom. But some days I have trouble seeing past the implications that all this work is for a fancy piece of paper and a few letters after my name to help inflate my ego. Sometimes its difficult to believe that years aren’t passing me by while I’m studying the driver’s manual, that all my efforts are just the pulling of a string with life’s most grand practical joke waiting at the end.

The snowy owl is a bird whose name alludes to its description. Like most owls, it is carries a solemn expression and has an elusive nature. The owl is covered in white feathers, even on its feet, to protect it from the cold. They are a prized glimpse for any birdwatcher because snowy owls rarely exist in any environment but arctic tundra. When winters are particularly harsh, however, the owls are known to sweep down from Canada into northern states.

I know all this because later that night, after dropping of my fiancé at her apartment and returning to my own, I deviated from the stack of commentaries and to-dos and researched known owl species in my state. While my research showed that snowy owls have been spotted in my state, nowhere could I find an account of them appearing outside the dead of winter. Furthermore, the barn owl, though also a rare sighting, is much more likely in my area. As time goes on, my conviction of having seen a snowy owl fades into the shadow of logic which says my memory must deceive me: what I saw was actually just a barn owl.

But earlier that night, as the car rounded a bend, a luminescent object on the side of the road startled me. I swerved the car to the left and slammed on the brakes. A few feet in front of the bumper was a bright-eyed creature, shining in the headlights and staring right towards us. After a moment of consideration, it turned its gaze from us, spread its wings and drifted into the woods. As it did so I caught a glimpse of its body: almost completely white except for sporadic black markings across its back and wings, by definition: a snowy owl.

With nearly a quarter of a century under my belt I find myself passing hours upon hours acquiring wonderful knowledge that I’m sure serves some purpose, though often times I lose the forest for the trees. I begin to fear that the only thing I’m seeing the world drifting away in front of my rain splattered window.

But then I see a statistically improbable scene disappearing into the woods and I’m moved to the core of all that I know. Barbara Kingsolver refers to this feeling as being shaken down to the bone by the possibility of lives that are not our own. Every now and then my life needs to be interrupted by the bright-eyed possibility of something meticulous and strange happening around me. From time to time, my thoughts need to swerve to the side of the road, come to a halting stop and be forced to admire the reality of the cosmos in which I operate.

I need to count my life, not in years, but in the moments when my musings and the world’s small wonders intersect in a brilliant dance before me. I need to count my life by the light of two bright eyes staring into me from the side of the road, by the sight of something wonderfully out of place disappearing into the darkness and logic of factual conclusions. If I’ve learned anything thus far, it’s that the only way to count my life is by moments like these: moments when I turn the car back to the right side of the road and continue driving. Moments when she takes my hand as if to say that the mysterious and wonderful aren’t all that elusive after all. When I count it that way, I no longer fear that life is flying by me. In fact, I begin to enjoy the elusive wonder of its nature, lifting and disappearing into the darkness of the trees.