I Thought I Saw A Spark

We’re on family vacation this week which is always preceded by a blitzkrieg of packing. Halfway out the door, I realized I’d forgotten my charger so I ran back into our bedroom to grab it. The shades were drawn and the power chord was lying on the ground. I reached for it in the darkness and when I pulled it across the carpet the friction ignited a tiny spark. It was instantaneous though, and before I registered what it was the spark had disappeared and darkness resumed.

It seems to me, sometimes, that the pace of life is rapid and relentless. Science coins this the cycle of life; children’s songs sing about life as a circle. But, try as I might, I can’t see either of these. I see a straight-line path, and the further I get from the beginning the further away it seems. The road ahead isn’t turning or circling back around. But still I’m sprinting.

When I was a child, the notion of eternity scared me. I’d lay in bed at night and become paralyzed with fear at the prospect of time that never ceases. To this day, I cannot allow my mind to wander that direction. Some sort of deep and overwhelming panic takes hold of my heart; a suffocating anxiety builds up within me. On the occasion that my mind slips that direction, like hikers on a steep mountain trail, I cope by refusing to look down into the unknown, distracting myself with a notion that is more finite and manageable: a chocolate chip cookie, sports match or perhaps that novel I’ve been meaning to read. Anything temporary, anything fading, anything to which I can relate.

Perhaps the idea of eternity is startling because I cannot help but wonder what the point of it all really is. Sure, I can spurt off the Sunday-school answers, with felt-board words like “glory”, “plan”, “salvation” and “redemption”. But these seem to be as tangible to me as shooting stars on a rainy night. I know they exist, I know there’s something magnificent behind the cloudy words, but the night is overcast and the darkness overwhelming.

But then I think of two lovers beneath a gazebo, in a story I once read. Clouds break and the light of the moon sneaks through the branches and settles on her cheeks. And she looks up at him, and says what he’s thinking.

“Now, can’t you see?” she asks. “It’s like everything makes sense.”

For everything is connected; that is the core reality of my faith. It hinges on the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Eternity is the notion of never endingness and for the most part, this is something I cannot understand.

But now and again I see sparks of this all around me. Don’t we all? As the friction between metal and carpet electrocutes the air in a dark room, do not our lives and this world sometimes ignite a spark of light in the darkness of our own understanding?

I am sixteen, steering my Jeep out of the driveway for the first time. The air is hot and heavy but doesn’t weigh down my spirits; I passed my driver’s test that day. I turn onto the main road, push the accelerator down and feel the wind respond and sift as freedom through my hand while I hold it out the window. And I see sparks.

I am twenty, broken-hearted and alone walking along the train tracks out by my apartment. Suddenly the light of a locomotive shines upon the tracks, its approaching horn sounds up ahead. I look down at my feet, up at the train, then slowly step off the tracks before it flies by. As the train passes, I watch the spot where I’d just stood, where the wheel meets the rail. And I see sparks

I wake up in the early morning hour; dawn crawls through our bedroom window. I turn over in bed; her head is on the pillow, facing my way. As I look, her eyes drift open, as green and pure as shallow water at the edge of the lake. Then she smiles. And I see sparks.

The sparks of eternity surround us, if only we take a moment to notice them. And when we do, we find ourselves encompassed with the thought: I could be here forever.

For they consist of nothing unusual but something brilliant: a foundation of normalcy with a dash of wonder. We cannot control these sparks, like meteor showers in the nighttime. But we can look for them, even if it’s overcast, even if clouds shroud our view.

Because sometimes, for a moment, we can see them.

And: “can’t you see? It’s like everything makes sense.”

The other day, I thought I saw a spark.

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Bill Watterson, Memory & The Cessation Of Good Things

I am nine years old.

It is late autumn in southern Ohio. A chilling breeze weaves itself through the grass, rustling beds of leaves while the sun lingers behind dry clouds. In the mouth of a fireplace nestled between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves coals fight for life. A flame dances atop a block of pine swinging its orange hips back and forth along its surface. It is a calm Saturday in late November and I am sitting on a worn green couch with a blanket wrapped around my feet. A stack of Calvin & Hobbes comic books sits next to me; one of them is open on my lap.

I am nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

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For the past nine months on this blog, I’ve been occupying myself with a series called “My Life According To Calvin” where I utilize various aspects of Bill Watterson’s world to illustrate different moments of my own life. This has been almost entirely for my own amusement; I read Calvin and Hobbes throughout my my youth and into adulthood. They were as influential to me as any collection of literature and it has been heartwarming if not entirely edifying to return to the archives of my childhood as a means of articulating my current state.

As some may know, the comic strip has a unique story. As an adult, it is the ending of Watterson’s creation that fascinates me the most. In November of 1995, at the height of the strip’s popularity, Bill Watterson announced his retirement from the comic world. On December 31st of that year, the final strip was published.

In the years since then Bill Watterson has not published or produced any other significant works. He is more than slightly reclusive and covets his privacy. Meanwhile fans across the globe bemoan the death of a comic strip they loved and cherished.

But as with everything else, Calvin & Hobbes was doomed to come to an end. All good things must, after all, and the mortality of a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger was never in question. Even if Watterson had dedicated his entire life to creating new strips, simple logic seems to dictate that his inevitable death would have brought with it the end of Calvin & Hobbes.

Or does it? calvin 1

It seems that, as with many forms of art, there is a substance to Calvin & Hobbes that exists beyond the parameters of its creator. This past summer, I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a collection of these books in a Central American coffee shop. Numerous forums and blogs are dedicated to its memory, my own being one trite example. We see this across the spectrum of the arts: the Mona Lisa smiles upon millions of visitors a year, the Iliad is still read in high school classrooms and the pyramids of Egypt are climbed by sandaled feet from all across the globe. The boy and his tiger live on, despite the fact that time has surpassed its parametered existence. The cessation of a good thing, the end of something, doesn’t in fact appear to be its end.

calvin 2For once something has existed will it not always exist? The wind moves though we cannot see it, a word once spoken does not just disperse into the atmosphere and memories are haunting beyond the most potent of earthly powers.

In saying this I cannot avoid the fact that I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

Eternity is a frightening concept for any human being to wrap their head around. Perhaps this is because we are drenched in our own personal reminders of it. These reminders are memories and it is the memory of a human being that is its most beloved friend or, depending on the moment, hated enemy.

For the memory pieces together the good, bad, ugly and confusing; it is the anchor of a human amidst the turbulent sea of existence. The memory is an archive of the culmination of moments which, when interconnected and pieced together like a puzzle, bring all of us back not only to the beginning of our story but also to the beginning of the story. They bring us back to the garden and the fall.

For all of us, no matter how diverse our backgrounds, can find within ourselves beautiful traces of the transcendence, fluttering down like golden manna from the sky, falling into our palms and breathing into us the breath of God into Adam, the Hebrew ruah, the spirit moving across the water and shining its creative grace into being. These memories exist within each of us though some have been touched by despair and others remain sparsely alive, watered slowly and sporadically by hope. Others flourish under healthy doses of sunlight mixed with clouds.

Likewise, we can all reach within our memories and run our fingers along scattered ashes: heartbreak, pain, depression and despair, sin and depravity in all its cruelest and most articulate forms. They exists within each of us, as potent as the serpent whispering within our ear. And at their very root is a Polaroid of ourselves, burnt around the edges with our faces scratched out, arm extended, one hand snatching the apple from the tree.calvin 4

All these things we find within the memory. They are not gone; they always exist.

And what we encounter with the cessation of good things, what “goodbye”, sunsets, graduations and yes, even the early retirement of our favorite comic strip teaches us, is that time itself is a notion conquered by memory. For although the logic of language and human thought dictates that we communicate of things in the past as something that is “gone” or “lost”, there remains a nagging guilt, or perhaps bitter nostalgia, to remind us of the truth.

For I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

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Likewise, the existence of memory brings within each of us the reminder of eternity, the future existence of all that is. For just as memory transports us back into the garden, so it allows us (if we allow ourselves) to stand upon an overturned box and peer across the fields of time, to look forward to the culmination of the story that began and ends in a new garden on the other side.

For the existence of a memory dictates the necessity of its purpose; if one believes in God then one believes in the omnipotence of the Being under who’s direct rule all things come together. But even if one is not compelled to put their faith in such a notion, they are struck by the inevitable conundrum of having to account for things with no purpose; evolution and chance cannot dictate the creation of a purposeless thing and logic provides no outside force which could, feasibly, supply it.

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The conundrum of memory, then, is that there must be a purpose. And what could be the purpose of archived remnants of objects, people, and events that no longer exist save for the foreshadowing of their renewal? What could be the point of a programmatic hope within the soul of each individual, save for the renewal and fulfillment of said hope?

I am increasingly convinced that what has drawn me to Watterson’s work all these years is not so much the quirky timelessness of his creation but the way it ended. The fading notes of a song are its most beautiful portion, for the silence that follows is a reminder of its existence and beckons to the reality that it can and will be played again. Any artist when thoroughly examined will be found with similar traces of eternity dusting their fingertips.

In Watterson’s voluntary and drastically intentional withdrawal from the public eye, however, every scrap of evidence was brought forward into the light. Fans demanded to know why a good thing had to come to an end. Why in a world where spouses abandoned each other, bullets ripped through children’s brains, car accidents took promising athletes, photographs fade and foundations crumble, why in this world did a boy and a tiger also cease to be? In Watterson’s accompanying silence (save for a couple of statements that were few and far between) the jury convened and concluded that, contrary to initial evidence, Watterson’s artwork hadn’t disappeared. For the story in which it played a small part, the story which had lodged itself into the memory of so many people, was part of a larger story, a grandeur story. Nothing had come to an end.

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And so I am confronted with the reality in my own life that I am still nine years old sitting on a couch reading Calvin & Hobbes. The pertinent reality of my existence is not dictated by the confinements of time. But rather, from outside of time there is/was/will be an Artist whose story I have been crafted into.

It is this story that compels me. It is this story that becomes my substance. It is this story that prompts me to find hope in the ballad of a boy and his tiger.

It is this story that teaches me, against first instinct, to take joy in the cessation of good things.

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