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.

Jumping Fish and Graduations

I was driving over a bridge in central Wisconsin last week when I happened to glance out the window. Underneath me, some sixty feet below, was a wide river flowing at a gentle pace. As it was, I turned just in time to see a large fish-bass or trout maybe- jump out of the water and splash back into the river before the bridge rolled onto highway and the whole scene was a remnant in the rear view.

I was in the Midwest for my girlfriend’s graduation; we’d both attended the same university, though we were two years apart. It was with a sense of nostalgia that I strolled through my old campus. The fresh cut lawns screamed with the completion of finals, opportunity, new horizons, chances to climb and chances to fall, new days that would hold sometimes love and other times hurt. I passed by some of my old classrooms, ate in the cafeteria, and even ran into old professors. As with many things of this nature, I remarked on the fact that in two short years the campus had hardly changed; I couldn’t say the same for myself. With memories comes inevitable introspection.

Passing one of the buildings, I recalled the astronomy class I’d taken. Science courses were a requirement and, being single at the time, I figured if I had to knock out homework with some co-ed, I might as well be star gazing and call it a cheap date. Two birds with one stone was one of my favorite collegiate idioms.

As with most wonderful things in life, astronomy class was nothing near what I expected. My professor was the type of brilliant genius who didn’t realize he was a genius, which might sound like a good trait but resulted in the lack of normal vocabulary in class; I knew times were desperate when I breathed a sigh of recognition and relief at the word “electromagnetic”. The only romance I encountered in that course was a one night affair when I fell asleep while studying and drooled over the textbook’s portion on Halley’s Comet. Later, of course, I realized the comet was named after a man and so the whole ordeal was counted as a loss.

For all the things I didn’t gain from my astronomy class, one thing it gave me was my inability to look into the sky and feel anything but trite, stupid and insignificant. There is no way I could do otherwise after surviving a semester’s worth of information on distant galaxies and stars. It’s a gift I carried with me for the rest of college, through the death of a friend, the end of relationships, looming rents and tiny paychecks. Even the nights when I doubted my faith, which was the very fabric that held all this together, I still retained the gift to look into the sky and, if just for a moment, feel the immense insignificance of my greatest doubts.

Its all too easy to forget that my life is part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than my nation and much bigger than my world. There is an inevitable and selfish desire to view everything in relation to who I am. Grades, graduation and journeys over the bridges I chose, take center stage of importance in my mind. But I am, in the grand scheme of things, terribly unimportant. Two years ago my graduation was a significant event in a small life; when I finally understood that, I finally saw it’s true beauty.

My insignificance does not cheat me of beauty, rather it gifts it too me in a cup that overflows. A punctuation mark in a sentence is not denied magnificence when it’s informed of its tiny role in a grand novel. There is no beauty punctuation itself that; no one will remember a period, comma or question mark in the long run; though the breath-taking and final chapters of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, strewn with these iotas of significance, many will remember well. My true beauty can only be found in the tiny, insignificance of who I really am.

I am a fish jumping out of the water, rising to my momentary desires, in a river that is passed over by the bridge of time. I am a punctuation point in a paragraph in the middle of a chapter and, sometimes, even an ending. I will swim, write and declare my life’s purpose amidst many others and then the page will turn. When graduation leads to life and life from whence it came, my role will be forgotten, but the story will move on. The water will flow and time will carry what’s left of me towards the grand promise of Love.

In the mean time, I will search. And in my insignificance, I will find true beauty.