Stickers And Caves

piano-handsI can’t play piano. My mother tried-insisted, really- on me having lessons as a child. I agreed at the time just because the teacher gave out stickers of envious quality for songs well played. My brother had already received three and there was no way he was going to hold that over my head. But, after a few sessions, she ran out of the platinum bribes, and began acknowledging my talents with generic knock-offs, like escorting the homecoming queen on a riding lawnmower in the parade.

So that was that.

Regardless, I can sit and listen to the instrument for hours. The sound of the finger against the key has to be one of the most beautiful known to man. If thin places exist, then they rest on the fingers of a pianist, and give way with each note and chord, like breaking the surface of water on a still pond.

Cheung Wai, a man from the western Xinjiang province of China, was recently rescued. He’d been trapped in a mine when a powerful earthquake struck the region. Workers digging a new mine discovered him on accident -and to great surprise. The earthquake happened 17 years ago.

What on earth would you do- that first moment, when you hear the click, clank, clank of axe against rock- and the light breaks through?

It’s worth mentioning that I’m graduating. Today, come to think of it. And it’s a strange thing to be stepping forth from the walls of this school into the vastness of the world. Out of the cave, Plato might’ve said. (I hope I’ve remembered to pack my shades.)

And I’m not quite sure what I’ve learned these years, quantitatively speaking. There’s no tally of facts; I lost count of pages read. And a GPA seems both unfair and deceiving (at least that’s how I console myself).

My wife and I attended a graduation banquet last week. As part of the program, a dear friend played piano and sang an original piece. And you could hear it, I swear. The rock breaking, being chipped from the walls; with every note our caving was caving in.

What if man- again, it was Plato who said this- could see Beauty Itself, pure, unalloyed, stripped of mortality and all its pollution, stains, and vanities… would that be a life to disregard?

What a terrifying question. And I’m not even Cheung Wai. I can’t imagine how the light must’ve hurt when it first pierced into his cave. A light shining into his darkness.

“You’re done!” My wife said when I got home from my final final exam. I know what she meant. But all I could think is: I’m only just beginning.

The fingers on the typewriter, the fingers on the keys, these are like miners tapping the wall ever further, deeper- tap, tap, tap, clink, clink, clink– into everything we’ve always had right under our feet but never understood. With them I venture, moment by moment, inch by inch, by the dim light of our headlamps which we call ‘tradition’, ‘upbringing’ and now another one- perhaps a little brighter than the previous- ‘education’.

I want to write something beautiful about that moment. Because I’ve come to learn that this is what life is. And were desperate to take some of it with us; savings accounts, photo albums, story collections and Alzheimer’s research: life is what we’ve made while desperately attempting to ensure the cave doesn’t fall in on us. Because we want to know there’s a way out.

There is the risk that someday we will find the beauty of the world is too heavy and it will cave in on us, burying us all. There is a chance that the God we find might be terrible and cruel, like a drunken bastard of a parent playing favorites and gambling with our child support. We’ll have wished we’d never looked.

But there is also the chance that if I look up, the light will be something beautiful, painful as it may be. There’s the chance that the notes on the piano are not breaking anything; they’re just tapping us on the shoulder and telling us to turn around- this cave is part of a world bigger than we’ve imagined. There’s a chance that the Divine is already here, and the light dancing on the walls of our cave are his puppet show, begging us to turn around.

What’ll become of us when the divine breaks through and the cave we’ve spent our entire existence buried within, what’ll become of us when this is all pierced with light, and by his wounds we become healed, saved, found, arrived?

I can’t begin to imagine. Though- if I had to guess- I’d say it sounds something like the beckon of a friend at the piano, on graduation’s eve.

Someone should give him a sticker.

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Ceaselessly Into The Past

I spent this last week visiting my parents in my home state. They’re on the verge of moving and asked me to go through my remaining possessions to see what could be discarded. A couple mornings into my stay, I found my way to a corner room in the basement where several boxes eagerly awaited my judgment. I opened one box. Inside were stacks of folders, notebooks and texts from my undergraduate classes. At the bottom were numerous manuscripts. Short stories, poems, and newspaper articles all accumulated from my collegiate musings. I even stumbled upon the pages of the novel I’d crafted during that time, a good find considering winter is around the corner and I’ve plum run out of kindling. I grabbed these and a few other texts then set the rest aside as trash.

The next box was from my younger years. It had my first photo album with baby pictures and snapshots of me as a kid, in-between my sister and brother, both of whom are now married. Another box contained peewee football trophies, Bible camp badges and model airplanes often missing a wing or two. Yet another held high school yearbooks, concert tickets, notes from friends and past relationships, an array of nostalgic items closing in on the current version of me.

I looked up. In my perusal of memories, I’d closed myself in to a niche of boxes. I glanced at my watch and realized that nearly two hours had passed since I’d entered the room and several boxes still awaited my verdict. A simple tasked suddenly seemed overwhelming; the room felt suffocating. I scurried my way out then changed clothes and took a run around the neighborhood. I needed to clear my head.

Tom Stoppard said that we shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms. It scares me that I can say “remember when…” and have multiple tales attached. It scares me that, young as I am, I don’t know how to handle the memories I’ve got. It’s not bad memories that hurt; rather, these are the ones that I shed without a thought of carrying them further. Pictures of lost loves, letters that were never delivered or disposed, the program for the memorial service of a friend, these I put in a small pile to tuck away quietly,  splinters on my cross; with happy icons it’s not so easy.

Because the prayer “thy kingdom come” doesn’t account for the feeling of heaven sliding under me like a treadmill. It doesn’t account for the first drive with my license, stadium lights on a Friday night, the first look into her eyes, Christmas snow falling outside the window, the sunsets, poetry and all quaint memories of this world. I should be thankful for all these things, and I try. But mostly they stack up inside of me, a constant temptress for visitation while what I want, what I need, is a prayer of gratitude, a thanksgiving of good riddance and the weight to be gone.

Returning from my run, I slowed to a trot before walking up my parent’s driveway. Their house was built in the 1920’s and by the looks of things the driveway wasn’t much younger. Glancing it over, I couldn’t help but admire the numerous well-defined cracks it contained from end to end. Curious, I sat down for a closer look. Viewed up close, each crack told it’s own story. Rarely is a crack the result of a negative outside force like earthquakes or sledgehammers. A good hot summer with low humidity can lead to water evaporating too quickly from the surface of a driveway, causing it to dry faster than the bottom and thus pulling the two sections apart. While everyone else is basking in the glory of perfect weather, driveways are bearing the marks of blessing.

Kurt Vonnegurt proposed that time is like a mountain range viewed from afar; one moment of eternity exists at any other moment, just in different locations. Perhaps my time is something like a driveway. It paves the way to somewhere and the beginning is just as much a part of me as the end. With just a glance, one could see that my driveway is littered with the cracks of wonderful. It’s scarred with the memories of days when the sun shined so fully upon my face that underneath I couldn’t keep up and part of me had to break off in the wake of grace.

I stood up and dusted myself off before heading inside to return to my boxes, stepping over several cracks on my way. I still wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but at least I had a prayer, clarification, something close to thanksgiving: Thy kingdom come, running out from under me, cracks in the pavement from end to end.