Anywhere But Here

anywhere but here

There’s a Catholic shrine in the woods next to our apartment building, a remnant from the days when the campus was a local monastery. It sits back from the parking lot, a stone arch topped with a cross and steps approaching its base, nestled into the trees. It’s easily seen to one who looks but seems as though it might be trying to hide, or let itself be forgotten, in a manner abandoned places often do.

I’ve developed the habit of taking short walks before bed. And I often find myself at the shrine, sitting on the stone table beneath the arch. There’s something wonderful, something mystical, about it that draws me under it’s shadow, to rest, listen, feel it breathing beneath me, at least for a little bit.

I spent part of my undergraduate years at a school in southern Indiana, where the cornfields yield to rolling foothills. Close to where I lived there was an old state road, winding like a forgotten river away from the new, four-lane highway that replaced it. Indeed, a small brook sang its way alongside the road; treetops curved over the pavement as if nature itself were embracing the street, comforting it, shielding it. It was hardly a few miles long, this road, from the place where it left the modern era and wound along a niche of the world overlooked by human time, before reconnecting at a four-way intersection. I never saw many cars on the road, though I spent hours running, walking, driving it’s length. If I had a thousand lives I’d spend a handful of them there, listening to the stories of the pavement.

For the place seemed, to me, like suburbia and farmland had met, at a sleazy bar in a hotel called “Progress.” The result of their one-night stand was a child, unwanted and unrecognized to a fast-paced world which ultimately left it behind; a child named Narnia.

Oh, what stories the forgotten might tell- the broken in spirit, Jesus would say. If only someone would listen.

My whole life I’ve operated under the notion that places are dead; inanimate, we’re told. And so they become unnoticed collateral; we discard places like tissues, use them as stepping-stones to our own journey, never listening to the stories the stones themselves might tell when they cry out, as Jesus would say.

But places haunt me; Narnia cries quietly in the shadows of my yesteryear. Like people, friends, acquaintances, lovers and kin- places inhabit small parts of my soul with a life of their own; and I cannot be free of them. As if I’d want to.

Celtic theology holds to the notion of “thin-places”, areas where the veil between heaven and earth is sparse enough for eternity to break through. I’m not sure if I believe in thin-places; for all the mountains, oceans, valleys and canyons-for all the wonders I’ve seen- I might have been convinced. Except such places never seem thin to me, but rather inexpressibly thick. Thick like the smell of rainfall on parched land, thick like the heaviness of a good feast, one that’s not soon forgotten; thick like the poetry of “I do”, like a lover’s dress sliding off the shoulder; thick like desperation, thick like the pain of loss, the sounds of a sirens in the night and the soil that eventually covers, buries us all. I don’t know about thin places, but I’ve been to thick places.

And the shame is that, for every thick place I’ve been, I’ve always been eager to leave. Deep in my heart there lives a teenage boy with a roadmap spread open on the hood of an old Jeep. The earth around him sings, leaves clap, snow whispers and sunshine lifts it’s melody. But he is tone deaf to it all. Wanderlust must be the eighth deadly sin, for it rips us from the ointment of heaven that place tries to rub on our dry, and cracking skin; it draws us from the infinitude of staying, from the urgency of breathing in the same air as it changes with the seasons, seeing the same view from our bedroom windows as it’s warmed by sun and blanketed in snow.

And most nights sitting on with that lonely shrine I find myself distracted within minutes, ripped away in spirit then body. I am always anywhere but here, always leaving before I’ve even arrived.

Which is why I return to the shrine. Night after night, I return, I sit and I allow it to hold me, whisper to me. The teenager in me flirts with a girl named Narnia; she’s got a glimmer of loss in her eyes but hope glows on her cheeks. And when I’m there I feel it, feel the place.

And I just think: I could be here forever.

Someday, Narnia tells the boy, you will.

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A Thin Veil

 I walked outside the other day to the refreshing bite of frost. I went to open my car door and stopped. A bee was sitting motionless on the door handle. I touched it tentatively with my finger and it fell to the gravel below, frozen solid. One lifecycle had ended as the grand cycle of things continued. I opened my car door, turned on the heat, and drove to work.

As early as the 11th century, clocks were invented for the sole purpose of tracking passing time. The Chinese emperor Su-Sung created a water clock consisting of a forty foot tower which accurately measured time by the rate at which a steady stream of water was able to fill buckets. The project took 8 years to complete.  The clock was stolen when invading armies ended the Sung dynasty in 1126. I would cynically assert that this was the best thing to happen to civilization for quiet some time. For the next 400 years or so humans were forced to continue relying upon the world around them to tell time, to somehow exist within and as part of the world.

For the past several months have slept with my windows open, noting the progressive drop in nighttime temperatures. The other night I awoke shivering and closed both of the windows in my room before putting on a sweatshirt and going back to bed. Temperatures were close to freezing that night. Since then, I’m not sure I could tell you if the weather has gotten colder or warmer. Until I found a frozen bee on my car.

I recall a night I spent backpacking a couple years ago. I was completely alone and was forced to realize that the fabric material of my tent was a terrifically thin barrier between myself and everything going on out there. The veil could easily be ripped in two, so to speak, and I would be exposed to the elements without an off switch or window to close.

I haven’t been wearing a watch lately. Not for any philosophical purpose, mind you, the watch just didn’t match my outfit and I’m trying to put out a professional facade. Nonetheless, an unanticipated and blessed side-effect has been the need to somehow guess what time it is for at least five milliseconds prior to consulting the clock on my computer or phone. Sometimes I actually glance out the window. It leads me to wonder if wristwatches have become a sort of lifeline for us between the world we’ve created apart from the world that is.

Celtic mythology believes in the existence of “thin places”, specific locations where the veil between heaven and earth is particularly sparse. A.W. Tozer argues that all of life is just as sacred as every other corner of life; to deny such would be to deny the omnipotent nature of the Divine. I’m not sure where I fall on this discussion but I am sure that if I believe anything then I must hold to all locations on the veil being particularly thin; it was ripped to shreds two thousand years ago.

I’m filled with an innate desire to see time tick, ticking that isn’t caused by a wrist-watch but is rather fueled by falling temperatures and life patterns that are much larger than myself, my race, my species, my everything.

But I’m also reminded of how much I spent on an expensive rain coat to keep myself dry on the walk from my apartment to my car, of how quickly I close my windows with the first frost and of the light I burn through the night in order to read of the thin veil that was torn in two when Christ breathed His last on the cross.

So I am tempted to stop checking the weather each morning and instead take the day as it comes; showing up to work soaking wet without a rain coat would signify that I am not losing my grip on reality but am actually more in touch with the way things are. I am also tempted to keep my windows open through the winter but I’m getting married and such an act might prompt a prenuptial.

But I am convinced that there cannot be a world out there and a world in here if there’s to be any hope for engaging the world, the cosmos, as it is. If heaven will have no walls then “thy kingdom come” consists of me accepting that there might be a wall between my heart and the world around me. It means realizing that this wall may be propped up my wrist watches, rain coats and closed windows and perhaps and that a dead bee may be more in touch with reality than myself.

Such am I, in relation to the world.