All The Everythings

The contract in our apartment prohibits the use of open-flamed candles. When I first read this clause, I found it a little bizarre; the implication that there existed candles that didn’t feature open flames was prophetically innovative to me. Sure enough, one of our wedding gifts was such a device consisting of a powerful light bulb that heats up a bowl melting cubes of wax and thus releasing a euphoric aroma. Just goes to show that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat, or light a candle.

About a month into our marriage, I accidently knocked over the lamp; it fell to the floor with an anti-climactic thud. No damage was done other than the fact that all the liquid wax was strewn across the middle of our hallway. My wife and I watched in momentary horror as the wax cooled hardening into a shape reminiscent of the childhood book “It Looked Like Spilt Milk”. Somewhat startled and a little bit panicked, I uttered seven words which I’m sure every husband has regretted at some point or another: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” My wife gave me a skeptical glance but, in her infinite grace, didn’t say a word.

A few days later, I was working at my desk in the other corner of the room when the blemish suddenly caught my eye. With an Evangelistic fervor, I wet some paper towels and set myself to scrubbing the spot. But nothing happened.

And nothing continued to happen for the next two minutes, which is about the time I dedicated to the issue before I realized it was going nowhere, pondered of all the other things which might procure much greater tangible results, threw down the paper towel, mutteringly damned the spot on the carpet to the deepest darkest corners of hell and then returned to my paper.

My will sits on a pendulum between apathy and hyper-curiosity; I either care too little or care too much about everything else to take the time to address the pertinent issues in my world. My life is surrounded by blemishes in the carpet, unfinished projects which, in some age past, caught my eye in the immediacy of their plight. I give up on studying Hebrew because I see no results; I let friendships fall away because someone else comes along. I read a brochure about starving people somewhere else and for a moment I am inflamed with passion for their cause. But the passion dies faster than the flame on a flameless candle and eventually it is just another spot on the rug.

Some time later my wife and I were reading on our couch when her eyes wandered to the rejected spot.

“Um, babe?” she asked, tentatively, sweetly, like one might nudge a dragon to wake it up for school. “About the carpet… you said you were going to clean that up.”

I glanced up. “Oh…yes…that. Well, I tried. No luck. Ho-hum.” I returned to my reading.

But she was confused. “So…now what?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. It’ll go away eventually.”

She frowned, possibly wondering if I was still talking about our carpet or if the discussion had fast-forwarded twenty years to the topic of our teenager’s pimples. She probed further: “What…uh…exactly did you try?”

I didn’t even look up. “Everything.”

“Everything?”

Everything.”

Seeing that the conversation had reached a roadblock, she returned to her reading with another jewel in her crown. My stubbornness has manufactured that thing and, though I shouldn’t be, for that I’m proud.

But when I think about all the “everythings” in my life I have attempted, I feel a sense of imminent shame. There is nothing to which I have dedicated myself entirely: not school, not marriage, not work, not even-I must admit-my faith. The everything within me, the entirety of my desire and effort, is constantly split fifteen different ways. If one of these fails to produce immediate results to further captivate my attention, I move on to the next. I am a consumer of my own will, a cannibal of my own desires. The irony pervades me.

Thus, the spot on the carpet remains. Some day I will dedicate my everything to removing it, just for a few minutes, maybe an hour. Hopefully before my wife’s infinite patience runs dry. Maybe by that time I’ll have found the key to persistence. Maybe then I won’t be instantly drawn from the task at hand by the first enticing prospect to catch my eye. Maybe. Just maybe.

But until then the spot remains as a reminder. A reminder of the grace I demand from those I love the most, a reminder of my own shortcomings even in the midst of my greatest intentions, a reminder to me of all the everythings I fail to give in my life.

 

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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.

Settling For Orthodoxy

My apartment building was originally built as a tavern in 1806. For a while, it functioned as the first class hotel in the town, hosting many famous visitors; John Adams actually referenced the host and hostess of the building in some of his letters. In recent years, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair making it still quite livable but a long cry from luxurious and thus gratefully affordable for my modest budget.

From the outside the building is little to behold. It has four stories, the fourth of which is set back from an expansion on the third level. For some reason or another a previous owner decided to adorn the building’s addition with a different color than the rest; the third story consists of an obtuse yellowish-pink siding. Reasons and intentions may vary, but at least ascetically it was a poor choice. The rest of my street is lined with high-priced colonial buildings, all with proud historic registrations hanging next to their doors. At best, mine has the unbecoming nature of a used minivan at soccer practice. At worst it looks like the sound of a fart in a funeral.

During my undergraduate work, I wrote a memorable paper on Dante’s Divine Comedy. I built my thesis on elusive and non-concrete facts, an argument built on sand to support a point I figured to be entirely genius because not once had it been mentioned in class. It was that obscure. In my efforts towards profundity, I even withheld from getting the teacher’s advice; God forbid she steal my idea for her next academic publication.

Years down the road as a seminary student, I feel that the quickest way to make my place in this field is through some sort of controversy. These days heretics aren’t burned, usually they’re best sellers. Pulled by this current, I find myself sacrificing common sense and truth on the wacky, tripped-out altar of originality. The problem with this perspective is that a hundred years from now, my controversy will be overlooked as dull and obnoxious at best, while true reverence is saved for those who knew how to preserve, tweak and further illuminate the beauty of things that in and of themselves demanded saving. Just because it’s led to momentary fame and spotlights for other people doesn’t mean I want to be the one to publish the next vampire romance of theology.

When my paper on the Divine Comedy was graded and returned, I was adequately humiliated to find the pages riddled with red markings. At the bottom was a note from my professor pointing out that I’d built my thesis on a misconstrued definition of a single word (Literature student seeking humility? Granted). Though she admired my originality, she advised me to use a dictionary next time. The dreadful irony in the situation was that I had used a dictionary; the paper was littered with multi-syllabic concoctions I wouldn’t otherwise know from my grandmother’s prescription. I’d just never bothered to look up that word because no one wants to come to the self-realization that their genius is stupidity in sheep’s clothing.

I have aspirations of success, just like any other human. Every now and then I may think I’ve found the edge on some issue or topic. But the more I study theology the more I find that my edges are hardly a new color. In fact, their color that is so old and renowned for its doofuscity that it sticks out like a sore thumb and demands that someone question my taste in décor. This is the cross of many intellectual-wannabes in my generation. It seems that I am continually finding, against my most earnest and rebellious wishes, that the new and intriguing sometimes gives way to a retrospective “what the hell was I thinking?”

And so I’ve brought myself to a point of settling for orthodoxy. I’ve brought myself to the point of looking at a building and not wanting to change it to something economical or modern, but perhaps just preserve the way it is. I’ve come to the point of realizing that nothing is novel in this world, nothing is new under the sun. I’ve come to the point of finding beautiful in the ordinary, the placid and the settled, of seeing what is new and reformed to frequently be the most narrow-minded of all. I see it this way not because tradition is perfect or stories unscarred but because in my rush to something fresh and new I find myself ignoring a history of fascinations, heresies, wars and trivial undertakings that all have lessons to teach me. The buildings I try to adapt into my new way of thinking are actually one of the strongest links to the past from whence I come.

And when I really think about it, that’s not too bad for settling.