Cake

This is Icelandic Chocolate Cake. And it's totally worth you flying across the pond right now.
This is Icelandic Chocolate Cake. And it’s totally worth you flying across the pond right now.

The moral to this story, I’ll tell you right now, is that you should always, always, go out for chocolate cake.

It was Tuesday night here in Iceland. We’d just completed another session as guests on the international show for the Christian radio station in Reykjavik. Bill was driving us back to our apartment and a magnificent sun was setting across the Atlantic over the harbor.

“So tonight seems like a good night,” Bill said, “to treat ourselves. So…how about we head downtown for some chocolate cake?”

Now, in case you’ve never had some of this chocolate cake, in case your taste buds have never had the opportunity to be lavished in such sweet, smooth, moist delicacy, in case your tongue has yet to have an affair with the cocoa delight that is chocolate cake in Iceland: allow me to tell you this: Icelandair has a summer special on their airplane tickets from America right now. From Boston it will cost you about $800 round trip, plus about $50 for your taxi fare to downtown Reykjavik and another $7 for the piece of cake. And since you’ve come all this way you may as well get two. So that’s $964 for this cake. But I promise you: it will be totally, 100% worth it. Trust me.

All that said I was a little hesitant. Given what I’ve just explained to you, and the events that followed, this does make me a fool. But, for some reason, I felt as though that night was not the night for us to go downtown and get chocolate cake; I wasn’t feeling well, there were a couple of assignments I needed to finished and submit for the next day and I hadn’t slept well the night before. All this is no excuse; it’s still Icelandic chocolate cake. So although Mollie jumped up at the opportunity, I turned to her in the backseat and asked if there was anyway we could just go home, which seemed as cruel as walking up to a child and popping their smiley face balloon. But she was sweet and understanding, and Bill steered the car towards our apartment.

When we got back, I attempted to access the internet so I could reply to some pertinent emails. The internet wasn’t working in our room, a common occurrence, so I planted myself in the hallway, sitting against the wall and finally found a connection.

Less than two minutes had passed when a man approached me and asked me a question in Icelandic.

“English?” I replied.

He smiled. “Oh! You’re American too?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Me too! I’m from Virginia. Where are you from?”

“Boston. My wife and I are-“

“Can you help me move my TV?”

I was caught off guard by the blunt nature of his request. “Yes…I…uh…where do you need to move it too?”

“It’s in my room,” he turned and pointed, “Down the hall, at the end. It’s broken and I need to take it to the dumpster outside. But it’s too big for me to lift.”

“Yeah, I’ll help,” I said, “Just let me grab my shoes.”

I returned to our room and left my computer with Mollie, explaining what I was doing before slipping into my sandals and exiting again. Then I found my way to the last room at the end of the hall, where the man was standing next to a large, old TV with a smashed screen.

We knelt down and picked it up easily enough, and between the two of us we were able to carry it outside and set it by the dumpsters. Afterwards, we stood outside for a couple of minutes talking. His name was Ricky. His mother was Icelandic, his father American. He was working in the shipyards here and looking for more permanent housing, but had only moved over a couple of months previously. He spoke fluent English and Icelandic, which I found very impressive.

As we were walking back inside, I lifted my hand to open the door and felt something warm running down my fingers. It was then I noticed a considerable amount of blood dripping from my wrist.

“Oh shoot,” I said, pulling my sleeve away from the blood.

“Oh gawd!” Ricky looked at my wrist then looked at me like I’d been shot. “Did that just happen?”

“Yea,” I said. Some blood dripped onto the ground. I found the source of the bleeding, a very small gash, perhaps 1-2 inches long but seemingly very deep, just below my thumb on the wrist. I held some fingers over it. “I must have caught myself on the TV’s broken glass.”

Ricky looked at it closer and whistled. “I bet you’ll need stitches.”

“Do you happen to have any band aids?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Any first aid kit of any type?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Maybe it’s just a flesh wound.”

“No,” Ricky said, failing to get the joke. “That’s bad. You need stitches.”

We were back inside now, and Ricky had the nervous demeanor of someone who either couldn’t stand the sight of blood or was to embarrassed to know how to apologize. He turned and said something very quick about “thanks for your help” and “sorry about that, hope you can get to a hospital.” Then he turned and headed towards his room, leaving me standing alone in the middle of the hallway, with one bloody hand gripping the other wrist, wondering what on earth to do next as more blood was seeping through my finger tips. If that whole scene sounds pathetic let me reassure you: it really kinda was.

So that’s how we found ourselves, myself, Mollie and Bill, at an Icelandic Emergency Room shortly after midnight. When I returned to the room, I informed Mollie that we had a little bit of a situation in my hand (and yes, I used the pun). When she refused to allow me to try and cauterize the gash with our stove’s hot pad (women are so stinkin’ illogical in these matters) we called Bill and asked if he’d take us to the hospital. By 3 AM, a doctor had put a couple of stitches into my wrist and we were back home for a few hours sleep before another day.

Later that week, we attended a conference in the countryside and heard a speaker from the UK address a consortium of local congregations. It was a blessing to attend as the speaker was dynamic as well as entertaining. He cited Matthew 5:41, reminding us that one way Christians make themselves known to the world is by going the extra mile for people they interact with: not just giving them their coat, but their shirt as well. I’ve read this passage a million times. And, being a runner, this concept has become somewhat diluted to me. One extra mile is nothing…it sounds like a piece of cake. But as he spoke, I looked down at my bandaged wrist and I thought about Ricky.

I hadn’t seen Ricky since the night I’d gone to the hospital. He’d never come to check up on me, and while I wasn’t necessarily bitter, I also wasn’t too eager to be chummy with the guy that left me bleeding in the middle of the hallway. Besides, I’d done my part, hadn’t I? I carried the TV downstairs and sliced my hand open. I’d gone the entire mile with him and at least the extra quarter-mile.

But Jesus didn’t say: “go another few steps with them.” He didn’t say “go until you can sleep well at night.” He said: “go an extra mile, every 5,268 feet of it.” And yet here I am peering out my door to the end of the hallway, where Ricky’s apartment sits, knowing I need to just go, knock, tell him I got to the hospital okay, and “can I help with anything else?”

“But Jesus, I can’t. That’s awkward. I don’t just knock on people’s doors like that. That’s not a piece of cake. How about we settle for a quarter-mile?”

And the answer comes back, plain and simple: “Did I settle for a quarter-mile with you?”

So even as I type this, I’m learning that there’s still some of that extra mile left for me to cover. I’m not sure how I’ll do it. But I’ve got an idea:

Maybe I’ll go out for chocolate cake and while I’m there, I’ll get an extra slice for Ricky. It’d be a good excuse to swing by, right? Who doesn’t want some chocolate cake? And since I’ve established that a slice is worth about $964, I’d say that’s going the extra mile. So that’s my thought.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this whole thing, it’s that when in doubt, you should always, always, go out for chocolate cake.

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Truth Like A Bird

I got my guitar back from the repair shop yesterday, a truly unfortunate happening for residents of the neighboring apartments. For with summer being greeted by the opening of our windows these unsuspecting bystanders might soon to be subjected mixed melodies of an acoustic guitar and noises resembling a hyena with it’s toe stuck in a trash compactor.

You see, my guitar has been in the shop for quite some time and I’ve missed it dearly. Daily I would glance towards its stand with a whimsical sigh, wishing to take the neck in my grasp, to pluck a melody from its strings. At times I would hear songs on the radio and anticipate arriving home to practice them myself, returning instead to my guitar’s vacant seat.

And yet when I brought the guitar home today I placed it in its familiar corner. As soon as I set it down, my mind was drawn away and I hurried on to some other task. I still haven’t touched it.

I was out jogging this week when a large bird swooped across the road, startling me. It must have had a wingspan of nearly four feet. But it flew by so quickly I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was. I sprinted to the other side of the street, glancing into the trees where it’d disappeared. But it was long gone and I couldn’t spot it. Three days later, the mystery still lingers.

The truth shall set you free, Christ told his disciples. This is all fine and dandy, but it really begs the question:

“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

And Jesus didn’t say anything.

I often wish that life had a rewind button for grand moments, the first starry night my infant eyes beheld, the feeling of her hand taking mine, the unknowing last words spoken to a friend. I wish there was a way to revisit these events, moments when truth slipped through my fingers and I didn’t know to grasp it until later.

But I also long for the seemingly trite moments, like the bird soaring over the road in front of me: moments when I would’ve just liked to see truth before it disappeared into the trees.

I often find it difficult to trust a God who held this mysterious truth in one hand and yet emphasized the necessity to receive it with the other. Like a carrot dangling from a stick in front of a horse, truth always seems just out of reach. Still it is close enough to smell, sometimes to the point of insanity leading me to wonder if I am a horse, not merely a big, dumb ass.

But then my eyes wander to my guitar sitting in the corner. And the reality sinks in: something is only what I want until I have it. Oh, the wanderlust of my impatient desires! I have scarcely begun descending one mountain of faith before wondering if the grass will be greener over the next summit, or recalling how plentiful were slopes I’d just left.

My suspicion is that I am not alone in this. And this theory is confirmed by a world consumed with waving banners of momentary satisfaction, by never-ending highways lined with billboards that cut through the hearts of others like me.

So it comes as no surprise that truth is to be found in the desire; how else could I know it? It cannot be handed over to me like a guitar to a distracted man. Nothing would come of it. Had I seen the bird long enough to recognize it, I’m sure I would have forgotten its existence within a matter of minutes. Possession annihilates remarkability.

So truth must remain, at least partially, a mystery, especially to those who wish for it most. It is, the poet Rainier Rilke once proclaimed, like locked doors that we are not yet ready to open. We could not yet have it.

But although the door is locked we hold the key as one holds sand between his fingers. For the key is desire and within the longing the answer lies like exquisite wine in the barrels of our existence. For the truth to be something we can behold it must first age. Otherwise it is just some cheap moonshine on which we become drunk, singing and dancing around our own Babeling towers.

And so truth remains slightly out of my grasp, alluding me as a bird in the wind. The desire moves me forward, one step at a time. And I learn to love the scent of truth almost as much as its fulfillment. The kingdom of God is already among us, after all.

In the meantime, my guitar sits in the corner and I move on to other things. After all, it’s only what I want until I have it.

Luckily for the neighbors.

A Hand I Can Accept

My wife came home the other day with a potted pansy with which to decorate the apartment. We set it by our living room window for ample sunlight and I was disconcerted to notice it already looked somewhat withered. So I watered it and opened the window, assuming fresh air would do it some good.

The following days were warm and amicable. I didn’t check the weather too much and the window stayed open. Then one night a front moved through. My wife and I went to sleep with the sound of rain falling outside our open window and just a lite blanket on our bed.

But by the time we awoke both of us were shivering. When I raised the blinds in our bedroom I beheld a thin layer of snow covering the ground. I closed the window then remembered the pansy.

Sure enough, it was sitting upon the open windowsill exposed to the bitter chill from outside. The leaves were completely withered, hanging over the side of its pot like a ten-year-old with a bad case of seasickness might posture himself over the railing of a ship. I closed the window quickly, though I doubted it would do any good.

I have not come to terms with a world in which things die; I’m not quite sure I am meant too. For the survival instincts of a living, breathing and pulsating planet beckons me to witness the common bond between all living things, the bond that drives us in a plight for survival. Despite what we all know.

I went for a run the other day and jogged over what used to be a squirrel, flattened in the middle of the road. I stopped and looked at it grotesquely arranged on the pavement, a drunken eulogy of flesh and bones. I looked for a moment, then I continued jogging.

My wife appeared from our bedroom with two sweatshirts on and a look that I’m certain was meant to remind me of how I’d insisted on keeping the windows open the night before. But I didn’t take note.

“The flower,” I said, “it was left by the open window last night.”

“So was your wife,” she noted.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“… ‘Sorry’ would be a good start.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “I meant about the pansy.”

Which is, to say the least, missing the point.

I could, perhaps, save the plant. Maybe some super-duper fertilizer would do the trick. Maybe if I put it into the microwave the warmth would revive its veins (note: as it turns out, this is not a good idea). Maybe, if I’m there five minutes before, I can dash out into the street and scare the squirrel into a tree so it isn’t run over.

But the pansy will die eventually. The squirrel may stay in the tree for a moment and, when I’m gone, dash beneath the wheels of the next car to pass. The executioner’s blade will fall upon us all, eventually. We can dodge it for a while; we can avoid it for a time. But learning to avoid it is missing the point. And I’d rather believe that death is god and it will win than ignore the elephant with cross-bones in its eyes looming at the end of my existence. I could not live in such denial.

But that is why yesterday I celebrated the only death I can celebrate: the death of a humble carpenter from a humble town, one that I’ve never visited. I celebrate this death with joy and reverence. I celebrate this death as I remove the pansy from my windowsill and stare at the body of a squirrel in the street. I celebrate the death with every moment of my existence, a living celebration to Him.

I celebrate His death for the fact that it was the most voluntary event in the cosmos. He was not a flower weakly succumbing to a sudden atmospheric change. Rather, He submitted to death’s terms by choice. And I celebrated His death yesterday because tomorrow I will celebrate that His agreement to said terms was only temporary; He always held the upper hand and He played it for everyone. Everyone, that is, but Himself.

I cannot accept a world where things die around me but I can accept that hand. I can accept a hand with a nail driven through it. I can accept a hand played for a world that lives, breathes and fights for life in testimony to the voluntary acceptance of the final sting in our stead. I can accept the hand which says a dead flower on my windowsill is neither permanent nor unnoticed.

I can accept that hand and within it find joy.

Then I can apologize to my wife for leaving the window open.